Astros Throw Lance McCullers into the Fire

Three years later, the Houston Astros’ 2012 draft is looking pretty good. Carlos Correa, their first overall pick in that year’s draft, absolutely annihilated Double-A pitching in the season’s first month. Unsurprisingly, his performance culminated in a promotion to Triple-A last week. Lance McCullers, Houston’s 41st overall pick that year, also earned a promotion with an outstanding start in Double-A. However, the Astros didn’t send McCullers to Triple-A, but straight to the majors. He’ll make his big-league debut tonight against the Oakland Athletics.

Heading into the season, McCullers looked like he was at least a year or two away from breaking into the majors. He was coming off of a rough 2014 campaign, where he pitched to a disappointing 5.47 ERA and an equally disappointing 5.73 FIP in High-A Lancaster. The biggest culprit for his struggles was his spotty command, which manifested itself in a 13% walk rate and 4% home-run rate (1.7 HR/9).

But things have been much different for the 21-year-old this year. He was nearly unhittable in his 29 innings with Double-A Corpus Christi. He struck out 37% of the batters he faced, and allowed just one homer. The hard-throwing righty posted a laughable 0.62 ERA, and his 2.26 FIP suggests his performance wasn’t entirely a fluke.

Here’s a look at one of his many strikeouts. This clip features McCullers’ curveball, which received 55/65 present/future grades from Kiley McDaniel over the off-season. The victim is fellow top-200 prospect Renato Nunez of the Oakland system.

McCullers

Running McCullers’ 2015 numbers through the KATOH machine, McCullers receives a projection of 8.5 WAR through age-28. That would be a more-than-respectable outcome. Unsurprisingly, it’s also a heck of a lot better than the wimpy 1.7 WAR yielded by his 2014 stat line.

The statistical comps tell a similar story. One finds McCullers among more impressive company this year compared to last. Using league-adjusted, regressed stats, along with age, I calculated the Mahalanobis distance between McCullers’ 2014 stats, and every Double-A season since 1991 in which a pitcher faced at least 350 batters. Below, you’ll find a list of historical players whose performances were nearest and dearest to McCullers’, ranked from most to least similar.

Rank Name IP thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 Chris Withrow* 56 0.2
2 Doug Million 0 0.0
3 Mike Potts 45 0.0
4 Michael Gonzalez 155 3.4
5 Steve Johnson* 54 0.6
6 Corey Black* 0 0.0
7 Victor Payano* 0 0.0
8 Omar Poveda* 0 0.0
9 Joel Zumaya 209 2.4
10 Andrew Brown 86 0.7
11 Brian Barber 93 0.0
12 Kevin Gregg 255 2.5
13 Rick Roberts 0.0 0.0
14 Chris Tillman* 718 5.8
15 Chris Fussell 135 0.0
16 Luis Martinez 16 0.0
17 Jaret Wright 758 8.7
18 Allen Plaster 0 0.0
19 Billy Buckner 138 0.2
20 Brandon Erbe* 0 0.0

*Pitchers who have yet to play their age-28 seasons.

That’s an awful lot of fringy major leaguers. There are a few decent relievers on this list, and a couple of respectable starters — Chris Tillman and Jaret Wright — near the bottom. But overall, this isn’t an overly impressive collection of players. For comparison, here are his comps based on his  league-adjusted, regressed 2015 numbers.

Rank Name IP thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 Gio Gonzalez 1,089 18.0
2 Fernando Cabrera 175 0.0
3 Pat Mahomes 452 0.0
4 Arthur Rhodes 533 6.6
5 Sterling Hitchcock 1,001 11.6
6 Jorge de la Rosa 589 6.3
7 Bruce Chen 698 4.0
8 Tommy Hanson* 708 9.9
9 Jonathan Broxton 450 10.3
10 Tony Cingrani* 186 1.6
11 Chin-hui Tsao 88 0.0
12 Phil Hughes 990 16.4
13 Curt Lyons 16 0.3
14 Chris Tillman* 718 5.8
15 Rick Helling 679 4.9
16 Wilson Alvarez 1,216 16.8
17 Chad Billingsley 1,175 19.5
18 Jon Lester 1,163 21.0
19 Joel Zumaya 209 2.4
20 Scott Linebrink 296 3.8

*Pitchers who have yet to play their age-28 seasons.

That’s much better. This bunch features several very good pitchers. I’m sure the Astros would be thrilled if McCullers had a career similar to that of Gio Gonzalez, Phil Hughes or Chad Billingsley. Heck, even Jonathan Broxton and his 10+ WAR through age-28 wouldn’t be a bad outcome.

McCullers’ 2015 performance has been all sorts of excellent, and these statistical comps do a decent job of putting some faces to his upside. But from a statistical standpoint, it’s hard to know if we should really be buying into McCullers’ dynamite 29 innings in Double-A. Sure, his last five weeks have been great, but his 2014 season — which took place over five months — was pretty crappy. Held next to last year’s showing, McCullers’ recent performance looks like it might be the fluky one. Steamer, taking all of this into account, forecasts an unsatisfying 4.56 ERA from him in the big leagues.

Stats are great, but sometimes there are things that they just don’t know about. The current iteration of Lance McCullers might be very different from the one who posted the one of the highest FIPs in A-Ball last year. If so, his recent exploits would be much more believable. And he’d have a much better chance of getting big league hitters out with some regularity.

To get a sense of whether McCullers underwent any sweeping changes, I reached out to lead prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel, who in turn reached out to some scouts. Turns out, McCullers has made some noteworthy improvements. Here’s the skinny on what’s changed with Mr. McCullers between this year and last.

*****

An improved changeup:

McCullers’ changeup has always had the potential to be at least average. Although Kiley rated the pitch as a 40 heading into the year, he gave it a peak rating of 50. This year, though, it’s flashed above-average (55) to plus (60), according to multiple scouts. Kiley also noted that Jose Fernandez — whose frame and stuff are similar to McCullers’ — also saw his changeup jump from fringy to plus right before he was called up. The improvement enabled Fernandez to transition seamlessly from A-Ball to the majors, where he immediately became one of the best pitchers in the game.

It’s unlikely that McCullers will be as successful as Fernandez was in his rookie year. Fernandez was an exceptional case, and it’s foolhardy to expect any prospect to achieve that kind of success, especially right away. Nonetheless, the Fernandez example shows that adding a viable third pitch can go a long way for a pitcher who already has two excellent ones.

More two-seamers:

Another scout noted that he started incorporating more two-seamers into his arsenal a few weeks ago. His four-seam fastball is relatively flat, so the two-seamer mixes things up by adding some sink/plane to his repertoire. This pitch is still a work in progress, however, and his command of it isn’t great.

*****

When the Astros took McCullers out of high school in the sandwich round back in 2012, many pegged him as a future reliever. McCullers had an excellent fastball-curveball combination, but his lack of a third pitch and subpar command lead many to believe his future was in the pen. The bullpen label wasn’t based entirely on projection, either, as he actually was a reliever for a good chunk of his high school career.

Two months ago, following his rocky stint in High-A, these bullpen prophesies looked like they’d be fulfilled. But the last six weeks have told a different story. McCullers looked more and more like a mid-rotation starter with each dominant outing in Double-A, and there’s reason to think his improvements are sustainable ones.

Still, there are still some questions surrounding the 21-year-old. Will his changeup be consistently above-average? Or will the flashes of 55 remain nothing more than just flashes? Will the command ever come around? And on the macro level, how much of his recent dominance will he retain going forward? The answers to these questions will likely dictate whether he ultimately ends up in the bullpen.

Although he’s recorded fewer than 30 innings above A-Ball, McCullers will be tasked with answering these questions in the big leagues.  He very well might step in and be a mid-rotation starter right away. He certainly has the stuff for it, and his year-to-date numbers — although they took place against relatively weak Double-A competition –suggest he’s ready for the big leagues. However, he’s still pretty raw, especially in the command department. And he has minimal experience against MLB-quality hitters.

At best, McCullers will provide a 2 or 3 win boost to a surprisingly-competitive Astros team. At worst, he’ll show flashes of brilliance, but will ultimately struggle due to his lack of command. Most likely, he’ll fall somewhere in between. But in any case, Lance McCullers‘ starts should make for interesting television.





Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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jrubymember
7 years ago

I tried for 10 minutes to somehow make a “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” pun and I couldn’t do it.

Maybe if they’d been facing the Giants, and I did something with “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Pence…”

Nah… oh well.

Rainmakermember
7 years ago
Reply to  jruby

I feel like this is a challenge Cistulli could answer…