Reading Between The Seams: Lance Lets It All Eat (Part 3 of 6)

  1. Part 1: The Baseball, Justin Verlander, and Denial (3/2/18)
  2. Part 2: The Ghost Of Ground Chuck (3/5/18)
  3. Part 3: Lance Lets It All Eat (3/6/18)
  4. Part 4: Keuchelangelo’s Swan Song (3/7/18)
  5. Part 5: Hall Of Fame Hunger (3/8/18)
  6. Part 6: The Cole Train’s Tracks (3/9/18)

Leading Off

Since making his debut in 2015, Lance McCullers, Jr. has been lighting up radar guns and stealing the hearts of the Houston faithful with his no-nonsense swagger and overflowing cup of confidence. The son of former Major League relief pitcher Lance McCullers, Sr. has established himself as a bona fide star in the sport in his own right, though the (perhaps overstated) whispered concern about Lance’s health persist.

After his first trip through arbitration eligibility (which earned McCullers $2.45 million for 2018, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts) ended with the Astros reaching a settlement with the young right-hander, McCullers is poised to finally begin raking in some real money for his contributions. The flamethrower – who is notable among the younger generation of pitchers as an intellectual who has embraced the utility of analytics and of pitch tunneling as vital to his success on the mound – has three more years of arbitration remaining before potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2022.

He under-performed his peripherals substantially in 2017, posting a 4.25 ERA that spat in the face of his 3.10 FIP and 3.17 xFIP. Stellar, too, was his 10.01 K/9 number, his much-improved (over 2016) 3.03 BB/9 ratio, and a GB% that has jumped substantially in each of his three Major League Seasons, from 46.5% in 2015 to 57.3% in 2016 to 61.3% in 2018, which was good for the fourth best mark among all pitchers in baseball with at least 110 innings pitched. Among that same (110 IP) sample of pitchers, he was top ten in FIP, xFIP, SIERA, K%, xFIP-, and he was eleventh in FIP- for the year.

Even more impressive, since breaking into the league in 2015, Lance is eighth in FIP, twelfth in xFIP, sixteenth in SIERA, twelfth in K%, and tenth in K/9 innings pitched across all starters (minimum 300 innings pitched) in baseball – and that’s including an ugly second half in 2017.

To understand what can be done to improve upon a slightly depressed (by his lofty standards) season in 2017, we first must understand his tool kit.

The Arsenal

Lance McCullers famously let his ridiculously dominant curve ball eat against the New York Yankees to close out the 2017 American League Championship series in Game Seven by throwing twenty four straight curve balls to end the game.

That happened not because he wanted to rub the Yankees’ noses in the pitch’s ownership of them, but rather because it is one of the best individual pitches in all of baseball. McCullers is fairly well known for throwing his curve ball more often (47.25% of the time) than his fastball (41.24% of the time), which is still extremely rare even in this day and age as analytics suggest more and more that elite breaking pitches are the way for pitchers to find outs – not fastballs. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated penned a glorious ode to the curve ball this season that features McCullers prominently, and this piece from USA Today in March of 2016 highlights the Astros love of spin rate by prominently discussing Lance McCullers and his fixation on his change up, as well as mentioning his masterpiece of a curve ball which, according to Lance himself in this (extremely interesting and insightful) piece from David Laurila of FanGraphs back in June of 2016, spins at anywhere from 2,800 RPM to 3,100 RPM on any given offering.Here’s a gif of the curve piece, as if you don’t already have every inch of the pitch’s trajectory memorized:

The big change this spring – and part of why this author feels so confident in his bullish predictions for McCullers being the best starter on the Astros in 2018 – has come on Lance’s other two pitches.First, a gif of Lance’s fastball in 2017, (again) courtesy of the incomparable PitcherList.com:

Despite an extremely healthy 94 mile per hour average velocity and the nastiness of the arm-side run on this pitch, Lance saw his fastball hit fairly solidly in 2017 to the tune of a .298 average against and only a 4.4% swinging strike rate, all of which resulted in a slightly-negative pitch value overall. Lance has committed to re-tooling a few things, and if the early returns are any indication, his new and improved two seamer should be a significantly improved pitch for him in 2018. Here’s a couple of really mind-blowing tweets from Rob Friedman – also known as the Pitching Ninja – who is one of the very best twitter follows one can find:

Here’s another tweet that compares the tunneling, with the red circle on the display, for a curve-curve-two seamer combination from McCullers’ performance against the Marlins yesterday:

Needless to say, that fastball is nearly unhittable – especially in such an effective tunnel to a righty, or running back over the inside corner to a lefty – and it becomes even more so in conjunction with Lance’s third pitch, the change up…another offering that he’s revamped this year in an effort to return to his comfort level that he had with it last year. Here’s a look at it from last year, again via PitcherList.com:

The pitch had impressive dive in 2017 and he set a new career high by throwing it 11.12% of the time, but he had difficulty consistently avoiding arm deceleration and commanding the pitch as effectively as needed, especially down the stretch in the year, which ultimately resulted in opponents posting a 1.038 OPS against it. Lance has returned to the pitch with a vengeance in 2018 so far, however:

There may even be a timing wrinkle introduced this year:

As Friedman says, someone is indeed going to be nasty and borderline unfair this year. But…can Lance truly put it all together this season? What does a full, healthy, peak Lance McCullers season look like?

The Road Ahead

If one were to ask a general cross section of Astros fans – or, for that matter, baseball punditry in general – the top concern mentioned with regard to Lance McCullers would be his health.While it would be irresponsible to dismiss the injuries entirely (Lance did miss time with two largely successive disabled list stints in 2017, after all, and he also missed some time – and just didn’t quite seem right, physically – in 2016) the fact that he’s had some injuries (none of which were overtly severe, and the most recent of which were not related to his right arm) probably shouldn’t dissuade anyone from being bullish on his breakout potential, in this writer’s estimation. Nothing is a given, obviously, but McCullers has shown true ace ability, and shown it recently. Consider his 2017 first and second half splits:

Lance McCullers 2017: First and Second Half Splits

Monthly IP ERA FIP xFIP HR SO OBP SLG wOBA K/9 BB/9 K/BB K% K-BB% WHIP BABIP GB% Soft% Med% Hard%
1st Half 91.1 3.05 2.74 2.74 6 106 0.29 0.335 0.274 10.45 2.66 3.93 28.00% 20.90% 1.14 0.303 63% 22.10% 53.80% 24.20%
2nd Half 27.1 8.23 4.29 4.58 2 26 0.418 0.482 0.39 8.56 4.28 2 19.40% 9.70% 1.83 0.402 56.80% 16.90% 44.90% 38.20%

In the first half of 2017, McCullers was undeniably one of the very best pitchers alive.

There was the obvious lack of a clear bill of health in the second half of 2018 attributing to those less-than-inspiring numbers…but, per McCullers himself as reported by Astros beat writer (now with the Athletic) Jake Kaplan via twitter, there was another (potentially more telling) factor as well:

Should McCullers be able to recapture his secondary offerings – the way it appears he potentially has, after extremely early Small Sample returns this Spring so far – and maintain his health for a full season, the Astros might very well have found their new staff ace in 2018. The Astros will be happy to let Lance run out there every fifth day and seek out that success as long as he’s healthy – it has long been established that the Astros raise their young pitchers the way one would raise a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex:

“You want to eat, motherf****r? Then go eat.”

And Lance? He’s hungry.