Confidence, Command, Health, and Lance McCullers

“You’re asking a lot of tough questions,” right-hander Lance McCullers laughed, before adding, “No, you’re good, you’re good.” We were talking about the role of health and confidence in his efforts to improve his command. To his credit, the young Astros flamethrower had stand-up answers, and wasn’t bothered. All of these things are related, and it’s easy to see for him. It’s just a question of getting right.

Baseball 101 says you can command the fastball better, so you throw that one for strikes. Then you go to your secondary pitches for whiffs. But command isn’t only a question of putting the ball where you want it; it’s also a question of confidence in putting that pitch in the zone where the hitter wants to get it.

For instance, McCullers can command his curveball — in that, he can manipulate it depending on the situation. “I’ve learned to do different things with it,” he told me recently before a game with the Athletics. “I’ve learned to shape it and throw it at different velos. I’m throwing one pitch, but in any at-bat, the guy could see the same pitch with three different angles and three different velos.”

He mentioned going 83 mph to go back door or back foot on a lefty. He mentioned throwing it 88 to a righty. He talked about having an 83 mph one that was “straight up and down” earlier in the count before going to one later in the count that will “disappear a little better” for a swing and a miss. Take a look at his breaking ball map, and a few of those patterns emerge, all from changing his finger pressure and how much he pulls down on that spike curve he throws.

The reason he can do all of this, though, is that he has confidence in the pitch. “The one thing I’ve been always able to rely on is my breaking ball,” he said. And this is a man with a 94 mph fastball. And for all that confidence in the curve, it’s a pitch he keeps down and likes to throw outside the zone — he’s no Drew Pomeranz or Rich Hill, since his zone percentage on the curve is almost a full ten percentage points lower.

So that leaves him with a poor walk rate right now. Actually, that’s an understatement, he’s the second-worst starter in the league by walks right now. And part of the picture is that he’s in the bottom ten on first-pitch strikes.

The problem for McCullers on the first pitch sounds like he has to have confidence in throwing his fastball in the zone, when his fastball doesn’t have anything like the nasty movement that his breaking ball does.

The solution? The sinker. He just started throwing it in his last game, and it gives him something he didn’t have before. “Sometimes you feel more comfortable with certain pitches than others, so even though it moves more, I feel more comfortable throwing it in the zone,” the righty said. Here, command is the confidence to throw that pitch to the middle and let the movement take it to the edges — rather than becoming too fine with the four-seamer.


That sinker has average fade and an extra inch of drop relative to a normal righty sinker — and it goes 95 mph. Judging from the pitch chart in his last game, most of his 14 first-pitch fastballs were sinkers. The bad news is, eight of them were balls. The good: that his ratio of fastballs to curves on first pitches was up to 1.75 from 1.30 this year, reflecting some of that comfort with the sinker.

There’s another component both to command and confidence that McCullers has been lacking so far: health. He came into the season burdened by a shoulder issue. That shoulder issue changed his arm slot, which changed his movement, which made pitching tougher. “The way my shoulder was coming into the season, we were doing what we had to do to pitch,” admitted the starter. “I’m starting to feel better, so I’m hopefully going to start revisiting the old slot.”


So his four-seam had an inch-plus more drop this year, and an inch more fade. His curve had, in aggregate, a little less cut and drop. Weirdly, his changeup got more movement. But that was due to a shortcut. “I was using one arm action that was kind of an abbreviation, and it made my changeup better,” McCullers said. “But now I’m going back to what feels better.”

The health is coming back, the confidence in the fastball may take a leap forward with his sinker usage, and the change may follow the same trajectory. “It’s also about trusting the pitch in game situations,” he said of that last pitch. “Even if I’m facing a guy that’s susceptible to a certain pitch and I’m just not feeling that comfortable with it, I’ll go with another thing that I feel better about. A lot of getting better is throwing things in games and getting experience and realizing that even though it looks good in the pen, hey, it also gets guys out.”

It’s actually sort of amazing how much has to come together for a pitcher to throw pitches comfortably in the zone. Health, confidence, command, and stuff have to combine to give the pitcher the strength and peace of mind to throw pitches generally towards the area in which hitters prefer them. All of the components haven’t been there for McCullers so far this year, but each is within reach.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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7 years ago

Cool interview, great article Eno. A healthy Lance McCullers was a lot of fun to watch last year; hopefully, a healthy Lance McCullers will be a lot of fun to watch for years and years going forward.