Lance McCullers Jr. put up some pretty good numbers during the regular season. The Houston Astros hurler had a 3.86 ERA and a 3.50 FIP and punched out 10 batters per nine innings. It wasn’t all peaches and cream — a forearm strain limited him to 128 innings — but he was nevertheless a stalwart on one of baseball’s best teams.
He still has room to grow. McCullers turned 25 years old earlier this month, and in terms of consistency, he remains a work in progress. Borderline unhittable when on top of his game, he’s prone to implosions. Four times this year he allowed five or more runs in fewer than five innings. McCullers readily admits he needs to learn how to limit such damage.
To a large extent, he’s already learned how to best utilize his plus stuff. Tapping into technology and the attained knowledge of veteran teammates — plus the study of others — he’s evolved into a thinking-man’s power pitcher. Thanks to a mid-90s heater and a hammer curveball, augmented by that studious approach, he’s on the doorstep of becoming elite.
Lance McCullers, Jr.: “To [learn and develop] a pitch, you need to have a knack for putting what you see, and what you study, into real life. You have to be able to put it into action. I’ve spent a lot of time with Dallas Keuchel. He’s been a huge mentor for me.
“When I first got to the big leagues, I threw a curveball and a four-seamer that was kind of up in the zone with a little bit of cut. I’ve transitioned into a guy who throws a lot of sinkers down and in, and backdoor. I’ll also throw sinkers up, across the zone, that are more horizontal. And I throw two types of curveballs now, as well as a changeup. I’ve developed a lot.
“A lot of that development has come from looking at TrackMan, looking at video, and finding guys whose pitches I admire. Scherzer with his changeup. Arrieta and King Felix with their changeups. Sinkers like the one Dallas has. Arrieta again; his sinker. You watch these guys. You watch film and see their arm paths, how they release the ball, how they’re timed up. You look at TrackMan and start to realize that your movement is close to their movement. But it takes a lot more than just looking at something to be able to take it on the field. You have to break it down to its most-minute form.
“If I want to throw King Felix’s changeup, I need to first understand the grip. I need to understand what he’s trying to do with the pitch — his intent — and you get that either by asking him, or by watching interviews. I don’t know King Felix, but I have watched interviews and looked at how he grips the ball. I’ve watched how he threw it in certain counts, and where he lined up the catcher to make it end up in a certain spot. I try to time up my delivery to his. We have similar arm swings, and I think I’ve developed a plus changeup.
“Intent matters. If you watch Kyle Hendricks throw his changeup, and say, ‘Man, Kyle Hendricks has a nasty changeup’… I’m never going to be able to throw his changeup. That’s because the intent of my pitches is different. Kyle Hendricks is a guy who uses movement and deception, and he works the zone. I’m a guy who is more using raw stuff. At the same time, I’m going to try to make the hitter believe it’s a pitch he’s seen previously, and that it’s going to be in the zone, but it ends up out of the zone.
“If you watch King Felix’s changeup, most times Zunino sits middle-middle. Where does that pitch end up? Back foot to a righty. I’ve come to realize that when I’m pitching, either with my sinker, my curveball, my four-seam, or my changeup, I need to set up my catcher so that I can aim to a spot that lets me get the ball to end up where I want it to end up.
“Say I’m throwing a backdoor two-seam, on a two-strike count. If my catcher is sitting right on the corner, I have to throw it to the outside of his right shoulder to bring it back to the glove. Well. how repeatable is that? How repeatable is throwing to blank space? It’s not. And if I throw to the glove, that two-strike sinker is going to end up middle and it’s going to get clipped. But if I move the catcher off the plate three or four inches, to where he’s set up for a ball, a sinker… as long as you know how it moves — where its trajectory is going to take it — you’re going to be in position for success. You can stun a guy backdoor with a pitch that starts as ball, ball, ball, then at the last 10 feet it turns over into a strike.
“On a changeup down-and-in to a righty. My changeup has an average of 12 inches of movement, so if I put my catcher on the inside corner, the pitch is going to hit him in the back foot. I’m not going to get a swing. It comes out of my hand and it’s a ball. But if I set my catcher up middle-to-outer third, I can use that 12 inches of movement. I want that pitch to be five inches off the plate, so if he’s middle, I have eight inches to work with, plus four more. The pitch is going to break late, out of the zone.
“Throwing to a blank space isn’t going to allow you to repeat your best rep at a high level. The best guys in the game — Scherzer, deGrom, Dallas, Cole, Kershaw, Kluber… all these guys who are so dominant all the time, it’s not because of great stuff. They do have great stuff, but they’ve also found a way to repeat their best rep more than anybody else. For whatever reason — however they managed to accomplish that — it’s what they’ve done. That’s what Bauer has done.
“Regardless of the Twitter stuff, and some of his antics that no one appreciates, Trevor Bauer is an amazing pitcher. He’s found a way to repeat his best rep more times than not. It’s why you see him put up a 2.25 ERA and punch out 12 per nine innings. It’s why you see deGrom with a 1.70. It’s why you see Scherzer winning Cy Youngs. Chris Sale. Aaron Nola. Constantly, man. I watch the guy pitch all the time and I rarely see him miss with a front-door sinker. I rarely see him miss with a two-strike breaking ball. Why is that? It’s not because…. Blake Snell, same thing. They repeat top-notch reps.
“Sequencing and tunneling play into pitching a lot. I want the pitch, out of my hand, to be perceived as a strike. I want it to travel to the plate, as long as possible, with the hitter perceiving it as a strike. If it’s an off-speed pitch, I want, at that last 10 or 15 feet where it’s too late, for it to move enough for weak contact or a swing and a miss. That’s what Dallas has been so good at doing. Dallas is the master at making balls that end up six inches out of the zone look like a strike until it’s too late. Then you see weak contact and a high ground-ball rate, and punchouts when he needs them.
“Dallas and I are different. Our stuff is different, and he’s a lefty while I’m a righty, but our intent is the same. He doesn’t throw 97, but the intent is to make every pitch look like a strike. The intent to throw his best stuff. Dallas may look like he’s taking a walk in the park, and you can never know by what’s on his face, but believe me, he’s out there grinding. He’s battling and attacking hitters. The intent the has, coupled with the stuff he has, makes him successful.
“If you go back and look at my best games — the games where I’ve blown teams out of the water… or if you take my best pure stuff off TrackMan… but the difference is, ‘How do I make 30 starts with every single one of them as good as the last?’ That’s something I’m still searching for.
“This year, if you take away two games, I have a sub-3.00 [ERA]. In the Cleveland game I gave up seven in four innings. In Minnesota, I gave up an eight-spot in one inning. Guys like Scherzer and Nola don’t have those types of innings. They don’t have those types of games. They’ve found a way to make their bad days decent days. That’s what I’m still searching for.
“My peripheral numbers are good. Ground-ball rate. Hard contact. FIP and xFIP. Strikes in the zone with off-speed. Strikeout percentage. All of that stuff is good, but I have a problem with walks. Some games I walk no guys and punch out 10, but in other games I walk six guys and punch out one. Why? How? That’s what I’m still searching for.
“I’m at the point in my career where I can break down stuff postgame, but I need to find a way to flip the switch mid-game. If I give up a three-spot in an inning, I need to be able to get myself back into locked-in mode and not give up anything else. I can’t let things go haywire. I need to become more consistent, and better with in-game adjustments. I know that.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.