Lance McCullers Jr. to Remain an Astro

The week before the regular season begins is usually extension season, as teams and players scramble to complete deals before the day-to-day rigors of playing baseball for six straight months get in the way of discussions. While this year hasn’t seen many extensions so far, it hasn’t seen none; on Wednesday, the Astros signed Lance McCullers Jr. to a five-year, $85 million extension, as FOX 26’s Mark Berman first reported.

McCullers would have reached free agency after this year; all five years of his extension would have been free-agent years, which makes comparisons easier. This deal is essentially a pre-agreement to a free-agent contract, with none of that squirrely nonsense of buying out arbitration years or extra team options on the end. Five years and $85 million, simple as that.

How does that rate look next to comparable free agents? For once, I’m stumped. The pandemic-shortened season, and teams’ subsequent financial retrenching, makes using past years as a guidepost a poor idea. Madison Bumgarner, for example, signed a five-year, $85 million deal — the exact terms! — but did so before the world changed. This offseason, no comparable pitchers hit the market; the only pitcher who signed a multi-year deal with an average annual value above $10 million was Trevor Bauer, and that’s not a useful comp here either.

You could, if you were so inclined, use Dan Szymborski’s research from last week that estimated the cost of one WAR in future years. The estimate has wide error bands, because it’s based only on multi-year contracts signed this offseason, but it looks like so:

Estimated Value of Win, Based on 2020-2021 Free Agency
Year $/Win ($Millions)
2021 4.81
2022 6.37
2023 7.34
2024 8.83

With that in hand, we next need to estimate how good McCullers will be in the relevant 2022–26 timeframe. Luckily, ZiPS has us covered there as well:

ZiPS Projection – Lance McCullers Jr.
2022 8 6 3.92 22 21 110.3 97 48 13 42 120 112 2.0
2023 7 5 3.82 21 20 108.3 94 46 13 41 119 114 2.1
2024 7 5 3.82 19 18 99.0 86 42 12 37 109 115 1.9
2025 6 5 3.87 18 17 93.0 81 40 11 35 103 113 1.7
2026 6 4 3.92 17 16 87.3 76 38 11 33 98 112 1.6

With the projection in tow and a cost per WAR (I added $250,000 per year after the years in the table), we can just do the math. That’s a 9.3 WAR projection overall, and after applying the relevant yearly multipliers, the projections would suggest a $75 million contract. That implies the Astros overpaid, but take a gander at those innings projections. McCullers’ past injury history leads ZiPS to a pessimistic playing time assumption. An extra 15 innings per year would move the deal up to fair value. So would four seasons of 150-inning production and a single missed season. In other words, it comes in pretty close to what we’d expect after accounting for his skill and risk factors.

That’s the dollars and cents of the deal, but let’s focus instead on the on-field implications. This year, the Astros are calling on McCullers to be their second starter, behind Zack Greinke. That’s squarely within his range; his career 90 ERA- and 79 FIP- mean that depending on which run prevention metric you prefer, he’s either been 10% or 21% better than average for his career, which sounds like a solid second starter to me. Want to regress home runs to the mean? His xFIP- is also 79%. In an average year, any of these three would put McCullers at the tail end of the best 25 starters in baseball, making him an asset as a second starter who can stand in as the top starter on a staff in a pinch.

Watch McCullers pitch, and it’s easy to see why he’s been so successful. His curveball is definitely the headliner here — who could forget his 24 straight curves in the 2017 ALCS? — but his sinker, a mid-90s bowling ball, completes his arsenal. He throws them interchangeably to start at-bats: Since 2017, he’s started opposing hitters with 32% sinkers and 33% curves, then adjusts accordingly; curves when ahead, sinkers when behind.

The sinker isn’t a swing-and-miss pitch, but it doesn’t have to be. Opponents have hit .324 with a .504 slugging percentage when they put it in play, good for a .348 wOBA. That’s excellent when it comes to results on contact. Put another way, it gets 61.7% grounders. It’s hard to get dinged all that badly when you don’t let your opponents put anything in the air. That lets McCullers attack the zone: He throws that sinker in the strike zone 60% of the time when he’s behind in the count, as compared to 50.8% when he’s even or ahead, and often gets either a strike or a grounder for his troubles.

If he’s ahead in the count, it’s time for the curve, a two-plane mind-bender that generated whiffs on 42% of opposing swings in 2020. The curve is worse when opponents hit it — a .375 wOBA since 2017 — but that doesn’t matter much, because they mostly don’t hit it. When McCullers is ahead in the count, opponents chase 40% of his out-of-zone curveballs, and that goes about as poorly as you’d expect: They come up empty on 67% of those swings.

One spot with room for improvement: He hasn’t yet been able to freeze batters consistently by coming into the strike zone with his hook. When he throws a curveball in the strike zone as a putaway pitch, batters swing 83% of the time and usually connect with it. But that often doesn’t matter, because he mostly buries the pitch and gets his strikeout that way.

You could argue, if you were the curmudgeonly sort, that McCullers needs a third plus pitch to really get the party going. He throws a changeup to both lefties and righties, and he’s been experimenting with a cutter, though he threw only 41 between the regular season and playoffs last year. But a third pitch isn’t a necessity, not when the top two work so well. He retains the changeup to keep people from cheating too much, and the cutter would be nice if it works, but what he’s doing right now is already succeeding.

One reason to dream on these pitches: Despite debuting in 2015, McCullers has thrown only 508.2 innings in the majors, as he’s been hampered by injuries large and small, missing starts in parts of several seasons and all of the 2019 campaign due to Tommy John surgery. He’s still developing as a pitcher, which both highlights the risk — 500 innings in six years isn’t great — and the potential upsides. Even with limited time to hone his craft, he’s been more than a match for opposing hitters.

This deal feels like a risk-reduction decision for both sides. McCullers is locking in a deal that will pay him like a solid starter; given his injury history, that probably sounds appealing. It’s not like he’s leaving a ludicrous amount of money on the table, either. Risk reduction is more palatable when the injury insurance you’re buying isn’t exorbitantly expensive. Maybe he could get slightly more on the open market, but this feels reasonably close to fair value to me.

On the team side, the Astros are getting two things. First, a guarantee that they’ll have someone to pair with Framber Valdez atop the rotation next year. Greinke and Justin Verlander are both free agents, and Forrest Whitley, who the team hoped would fill that role, faces an uncertain rehab timeline after blowing out his elbow. Rather than try to purchase that production in free agency or hope to develop it from the farm system, Houston can purchase it now — a pre-order, as it were — and guarantee itself a talented starter without relying on the open market.

Secondly, McCullers still has plenty of upside. If that cutter works out, or if he weaponizes his changeup, he could be an ace this time next year. This wouldn’t require some unprecedented breakthrough; he already has a bat-missing out pitch and a fastball to pair with it, so incremental improvements could push him over the top. Houston would love to have a true ace, and though the team has proven adept at trading for them, it’s hard to rely on that particular pipeline remaining open. By keeping McCullers, the Astros are adding another way they can succeed on that front.

There’s one last key risk-mitigation incentive for both sides. By this time next year, the rules of the compensation game may be completely different. The current CBA expires after this season, and neither side knows what the future will look like. By agreeing to a deal now, both sides are locking in something they’re comfortable with. In a year, the new CBA will either benefit McCullers or Houston, but taking a status quo deal now means that neither side needs to risk losing relative to the current paradigm. They can’t win relative to now, either, but if they’re both happy with the current rate, locking it in suits both parties.

Whether you prefer the boring actuarial argument — a financial deal that both sides can live with — or the “Have you seen him pitch? It’s gorgeous” argument, it’s not hard to see why both sides agreed to this deal. Everyone gets something they want, and no one risks a feel-bad moment next year. That’s normally what players get out of extensions: Teams have many players, so they can accept more risk per deal and hope they net out, and players only get one bite at the apple. In this case, however, the Astros also have reasons of their own to take a deal. Two motivated parties makes negotiating easier, and that seems to have been the case here. As a result, the author of one of the most iconic moments of the Astros’ title run will be a member of the team for years to come, reminding fans of both past glory and current skill.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Joe Joemember
3 years ago

McCullers’s best pitch since 2017 has been the changeup. Got a couple of funny looks on called strikes when batters saw his cutter for the first time as it was basically his sinker except it didn’t tail off the plate. Last year, it was more a surprise pitch than good, though supposedly it has gotten better.

3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

I believe he added a little cut piece this spring, too.