A year ago, Lance McCullers Jr. was the ace of the Astros pitching staff.
Before suffering a forearm injury during the American League Division Series, McCullers had been the anchor of what was a highly inconsistent starting rotation during the 2021 postseason, as he allowed just one run in his two starts (10 2⁄3 innings).
The 2017 All-Star quite literally gave it his all in last year’s ALDS, and it may now unfairly cost him a year later.
McCullers has rejoined the Astros rotation after being forced to miss the first four-plus months of the 2022 season. He returned in impressive fashion, tossing six shutout innings in his debut on August 13.
But in his four starts since returning from injury, it’s clear that the Astros’ righty has a fair amount of rust. A shiny 2.08 ERA notwithstanding, McCullers has walked 14 batters in his first 21 2⁄3 innings. Barring a continuation of excessive luck, an 88.6 percent left-on-base rate is simply not sustainable for a starting pitcher. Inevitably, the walks will take their toll on McCullers’ ERA.
The lack of control isn’t terribly surprising considering McCullers’ extensive rehab, but it is nevertheless concerning given his history of shaky control. In 2021, the Florida native struggled to limit walks during the first few months of last year’s campaign:
While he improved his control in the second half, that was after months of ostensible tinkering on the mound.
Ahead of this year’s postseason, McCullers will have less than two months to iron out the kinks in his delivery and refine his control. He helmed Houston’s rotation as it entered the 2021 postseason, but he is not considered a lock to be a part of the 2022 starting staff come October.
Aside from his present lack of sharpness, which includes an average fastball velocity that is a tick below its usual mark, the Astros boast the deepest collection of starting pitchers in baseball.
Even excluding the currently injured Justin Verlander — who isn’t expected to be shelved for long — there is still Framber Valdez, José Urquidy, Luis García and Cristian Javier, with the club’s No. 1 prospect, Hunter Brown, now officially a part of the mix as well following his impressive debut earlier this week.
These are all quality arms worthy of being included in the postseason rotation.
Including Verlander, there’s a case to be made that McCullers is sixth in the pecking order, meaning he’d not only have to leapfrog one of the five names ahead of him, but two — barring an unexpected development, the Astros are likely to employ a standard four-man rotation in the playoffs.
When he’s right, McCullers is undeniably one of the Astros’ four best starters. But time is against him. Including tonight’s scheduled outing against the Angels, McCullers could have as many as five more starts before postseason play begins. It’s possible that it’ll be a sufficient amount of time for him to make his necessary mechanical adjustments and further build up his arm strength. Theoretically, nine outings seems like an acceptable ramp-up.
Based on McCullers’ first four starts, it’d be difficult for the Astros to elevate him into the top four while demoting two of García, Urquidy and Javier to the bullpen. (Valdez and a healthy Verlander are absolute locks for the postseason rotation.)
But if he can display tangible progress in his remaining regular-season starts — particularly in the walks department — McCullers could ultimately force the Astros’ hand.