Lance McCullers adds a weapon, or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Change Up

Even now, six years after being taken in the supplemental first round of the 2012 draft, Astros pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. has been plagued by doubters among the media and fans who predicted that his ultimate destination would be a Major League bullpen.

Primarily, this prediction was stemming from scouting reports that referred to his 6′ 1″ stature and two-pitch mix of a high-90’s four seam fastball and heavy curve.  Two-pitch pitchers, goes the conventional wisdom, are relievers.

But after sixty four major league starts and well into his fourth season in the bigs, McCullers boasts a 3.16 FIP and 3.23 xFIP, both of which place him Top 10 among major league starters who have thrown 350 or more innings since 2015.

But still speculation has persisted, now buoyed by a seeming inability to stay healthy.

Health aside, McCullers has quietly begun addressing another major concern of those who would see him converted to the 9th inning of close games: he has changed his arsenal.

When McCullers reached the majors, he threw his four-seam fastball approximately 60% of the time, and paired it most often with his curve ball. As the Astros sought to maximize usage of his best pitch, the two pitches creeped closer in usage by the end of 2015, to where he was throwing them almost an equal amount.

But in 2016, the Astros did the unheard of. They instructed McCullers to throw his curve more than his fastball.  An astute reader would criticize usage of “unheard of”, stating that plenty of pitchers have “pitched backwards” in the past.  To which the author responds, yes, but how many of those pitchers possessed a fastball that averaged 94 mph or better? (answer: none, in 2016)

Below can be found the top 10 starting pitchers in 2016 (min 80 IP), sorted by the difference between their most-thrown non-fastball and their fastball, in terms of pitch count percentage. Sorry that sentence was so hard to parse. You’ll figure it out when you see the table.

(note: knuckleballers removed, because they’re weird)
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In 2016, no other pitcher threw more [whatever] than fastballs.  Sorry, Josh Tomlin, your cut fastball is still a fastball, even if PitchFX tracks them differently. In fact, the closest pitchers to McCullers in terms of stuff and usage are Chris Archer and Michael Pineda, both of whom approached their fastball usage with their sliders. But both of those guys still relied on their mid-90’s fastball more often than anything else.  In 2016, at least, McCullers was unique. (I see you on this list, Collin McHugh!)

But that was not enough. Starting in 2017, McCullers eliminated the four-seam fastball from his menu almost entirely.

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Instead, he started throwing the fastball with a two-seam grip, classified above as a Sinker.  As a result, his Ground Ball percentage jumped all the way to fourth highest in the major leagues among pitchers who reached at least 110 innings. (I see you at the top of that list, Dallas Keuchel!)

The resulting improvement against batters was incremental: hitters who had been hitting .278/.466 (AVG/SLG) against his four-seamer in 2015 were now batting .298/.435 against his sinker in 2017.  Not great, but better.  So far during 2018, batters are hitting .276/.345 against it this season. Batters still are hitting his fastball for a comparatively high average*, but for less oomph.  Overall for his career, batters are hitting 70 points of slugging lower on his 2-seamer than his 4-seamer.

The 2-seamer’s line drive rate is lower, its fly ball rate is lower, it gets more swings outside of the strike zone (good for a guy who came into the league with command issues), it gets seven more inches of horizontal break, and it drops a little less than his 4-seamer, making it more difficult to distinguish from his curve when it leaves his hand.

Looks like a good change to make.

And speaking of change, McCullers’ usage of his change-up has always hovered between 8% and 10% during his career, yielding mixed results. Not to bury the lede too deep, but this is the third weapon alluded to by the headline. Okay, it’s pretty deep.

In 2018, although the going is early, McCullers seems to be making more effective use of his change up. Already, batters this season are whiffing more against the pitch than ever before. He likes to throw it outside of the zone, and batters do not chase it any more often than they chase his two-seamer, but they aren’t hitting it this year.

The increased reliance and effectiveness of his change-up has a lot to do with the 2-seamer that he discovered in 2017.  The two pitches have a nearly identical horizontal break (only one inch of difference, or less than half of the baseball), which makes one tough to distinguish from the other. Confounding batters even more, there is a seven mile-per-hour difference between the pitches.  They look the same, they act the same, and the split second difference in arrival time is enough to blow up a hitter’s timing.

During Saturday’s game (4/28), renowned guest broadcaster Jeff Bagwell, who is also known for other stuff, mentioned that McCullers wanted to use his changeup more often, and that it would serve him well. He pointed out several occasions during the broadcast.

True to Bagwell’s point, McCullers threw a shocking twenty change ups during the game, generating a whiff rate that rivaled that of his curve ball during the game. It still yielded six base runners, a not appealing statistic, but still the usages and outcomes were eyebrow-raising.

It’s worth noting that one game is hardly a useful sample to draw conclusions from, regardless whether whiff rate, usage percentage, and whether or not it allowed hits. The key point is that McCullers, both by evidence during this game and season so far, and by the mouth of an Astros insider, is still tinkering with his arsenal.

Notably, during McCullers’ last three starts included two games with some of the highest counts of changeups thrown during his career. (4/18 and 4/28).  During those two games, he reached seven innings pitched, a feat he accomplished only three times during the 2018 season.  And from April 18th through April 28th, he threw twenty innings, with a 0.90 ERA, two walks, and twenty one strikeouts.

Conclusive yet? No.

Interesting and worth keeping an eye on? Absolutely.

If McCullers and the Astros’ coaching and analytic staffs (staves?) have learned that increased usage of his changeup can improve his ability to pitch deeper into games while managing walks, and if batters really are confounded by the minute differences between his new two-seam fastball and his change, it makes him –finally– a true three-pitch starting pitcher.

Variety is the spice of life, and if McCullers — already the possessor of two great weapons in the 2-seamer and curve ball — has added a third, it will add the challenge of befuddlement to batters who were already overwhelmed by the quality of his existing arsenal.