Lance McCullers is Poised to Become a Household Name

At this time in 2014, Dallas Keuchel was nobody. The Houston Astros were coming off three consecutive seasons with 106 or more losses – each accompanied with last place finishes in their division. Keuchel himself was a relative afterthought. He made his MLB debut for the 2012 team that lost 107 games, starting sixteen games. In 2013, on the team that lost a franchise-record 111 games, Keuchel made 31 appearances (starting 22).

Keuchel struggled mightily his first two seasons as a pro, as did nearly ever Astro in these years. He posted ERA’s of 5.27 and 5.15 in 2012 and 2013, respectively. His WAR in both of these seasons was -0.01. Something clicked for Keuchel between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. By the end of the 2014, Keuchel had gone from a zero-win pitcher to one with a WAR above five. His ERA dropped from 5.15 in 2013 to 2.93 in 2014, and he pitched in 46.1 more innings. The following year, Keuchel dropped his ERA to 2.48 and pitched in 232 innings, posting a WAR of 7.2. The man that was an afterthought entering the 2014 season was the AL Cy Young winner less than 19 months later.

What changed for Dallas? He started throwing fewer four-seam fastballs (15.22% before 2014 to 7.75% since), and dropped the curve out of his repertoire (8.60% to 0.26%). He began to throw his sinker more (38.72% to 47.29%) and his slider took up all of his breaking ball throws (13.58% to 21.8%). Throwing the slider exclusively instead of the slider/curve duet allowed Keuchel’s slider to take on additional movement. The pitch, which had broken -4.20 inches horizontally and 0.33 inches vertically, was now breaking -5.80 inches horizontally -2.26 inches vertically. These changes made Keuchel the effective ground ball pitcher he is today.

Lance McCullers is Poised to Become a Household Name

Unlike Keuchel, Lance McCullers was a much more highly-touted prospect coming up through the Astros system. Keuchel was drafted in the seventh round; McCullers was the 41st overall selection. Keuchel played three years of college ball, which McCullers came to the Astros straight from high school. Whereas Keuchel never appeared in a Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects ranking, McCullers did twice (peaking at 50 in 2012).

McCullers has the makeup that Keuchel never had. His father was even an MLB closer. A dramatic shift in his pitching style following the 2013 season made Keuchel a top-of-the-rotation starter. Lance McCullers came into the MLB with the elite stuff that makes him a top-of-the-rotation talent.

When Keuchel is on, he has elite command on his pitches. The fastball/sinker combo that he throws over 50% of the time resides right around 90mph, and his slider and changeup are right at 80mph. However, he manages tremendous control, throwing nearly 65% of his pitches in the bottom third of the zone or lower – typically, away.

On the other hand, McCullers relies on his plus stuff to move through the lineup. He has two potentially elite pitches, his fastball and curve, that he throws over 88% of the time combined. His curve breaks more than six inches both horizontally and vertically at 85mph. His fastball even breaks seven inches vertically, coming in around 94-95. Some things you simply can’t teach:

The other 10% or so of McCullers’ pitches are composed mostly of changeups. Coming in around 88mph, this also tends to drop straight off of a cliff, moving more than seven inches vertically. There’s nothing like getting caught in front of a pitch that’s also going to drop straight into the dirt.

When in the rotation since his 2015 debut, Lance McCullers has posted great numbers for a kid making his debut at 21. He finished each of the past two seasons with an ERA of a 3.22. A whiff machine, his strikeouts per nine innings increased from 9.2 to 11.8 from 2015 to 2016. His problem has been his ability to stay healthy. In two full MLB seasons, McCullers had only pitched 206.2 innings.

McCullers saw two separate stints on the 15-day disabled list in 2016, which caused him to miss more than the 15 days in both instances. Most concerning was the nature of the injuries. They were two separate injuries to his right shoulder and right elbow. For McCullers to be effective, and the Astros to live up to their World Series aspirations, he is going to need to keep himself in the rotation.

2017 Start

The 2017 season has just begun. The Astros have played three games at this writing, and McCullers has pitched just once. The sample size is incredibly small, and next to nothing can be taken away from one start. However small the sample size, the eye test revealed one thing: Lance McCullers looks damn good. In Tuesday night’s game against the Mariners, McCullers went 6.0 innings, allowing just one run and striking out seven batters.

McCullers’ Future Outlook

No one in the Astros organization would be surprised if Lance McCullers was side-by-side with Dallas Keuchel by the end of the season. McCullers having a better statistical season than Keuchel is certainly in play, if he can stay healthy. Vegas doesn’t see too much of a difference between the two either: McCullers is 33-1 to win the AL Cy Young and Keuchel is 20-1. Don’t be surprised if baseball fans are talking more than ever (or for the first time) about McCullers come October.

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