With an opportunity to clinch the AL West title for what feels like the 1,043rd time this week, the Astros are turning to Lance McCullers Jr. in his final start of the season tonight to help get it done. Based on his numbers alone – 3.13 ERA/3.47 FIP in 156 1/3 innings – there arguably isn’t another pitcher on the roster better suited for the job. But the anemic offense might make McCullers’ start tonight a moot point, for better or worse.
It wasn’t that long ago where this kind of situation would have called for the services of Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, or Gerrit Cole. But those guys are long gone, and McCullers has performed nicely in an ace-like role in 2021. Adjust the qualified innings pitched option on FanGraphs to 150 and you see his name consistently listed in the top-30 or better across numerous statistical categories. The Astros signed McCullers to a five-year, $85 million extension prior to the start of the season and it is increasingly looking like a steal if the results are consistent with his 2021 numbers.
McCullers’ more recent performance is mostly in line with past seasons, when health was permitted: Impressive strikeout numbers along with an ability to generate ground balls to help limit any damage. But that profile also includes a propensity for control issues, which leads to higher walk rates and the occasional stinker of a start. In fact, when sorted by starters who have thrown at least 150 innings this season, his 11.3 percent walk rate is the highest in baseball by nearly two percent. To his credit, though, the right-hander has done an excellent job of limiting the damage to something a bit more manageable, as evidenced by his 78.5 percent left on-base rate. Those two numbers are why we’ve seen both his xERA (3.46) and FIP (3.47) stay a little bit higher than his 3.13 ERA. It is all about suppressing those runs, no matter how.
What has driven McCullers’ value to new heights is that he is pitching deeper into the season with little to none known health issues. Sure, he had a stint on the IL earlier season with right shoulder soreness back in May, but the 156 1/3 innings represent a new career-high for the 27-year-old. If tonight’s start proceeds smoothly, he’ll likely pass the 160-inning threshold, which has never happened before. He previously topped out at 157 2/3 innings in 2015 between the Astros and Hooks. Considering there was some justifiable doubt about whether he can pitch more than 130 innings in a season, this development in 2021 was indeed most welcomed.
In short, I can’t think of anyone more deserving to start tonight for the Astros as they try to clinch the division title…again. Considering where McCullers was nearly three years ago, it is quite a testament to him as a pitcher. We all remembered the last time he was on the mound when a clinch was on the line, right?