Lance McCullers puts a lot of thought into his craft. The 22-year-old right-hander fashions himself a bulldog — understandably so; his father was a big-league closer — but in between starts he puts on his pitching-theorist hat. In many respects, he fits the analytic Astros’ paradigm to a tee.
Selected 41st overall by Houston in the 2012 draft, McCullers features a mid-90s fastball and a killer curveball. His lack of a consistent changeup has been a cause for concern, but to this point he’s thrived with the two plus pitches. Twenty-six games into his big-league career, McCullers has a 3.44 ERA and has averaged over a strikeout per inning.
McCullers talked about his pitching approach, which focuses more on spin than location, following a mid-May outing in Boston.
McCullers on his adaptive approach: “I don’t like putting labels on people, like, ‘He’s a finesse guy’ or ‘He’s a power guy.’ The game will dictate how I pitch. If a team is trying to jump on my heater early — they’re really hunting fastballs — I have no problem throwing 60-70% offspeed and using my fastball for effect.
“Last year, in the playoff game against the Royals, I think I threw 45% breaking balls, 12% changeups, and the rest were heaters. I’d get ahead early with my offspeed, then go up in the zone to maybe get a chase. Or I’d go way in, to set up my next pitch.
“I feel comfortable with all of my pitches, so I have no problem going out there and being what people would call ‘a finesse pitcher.’ Because I throw hard doesn’t mean I’m going to just rear back and let it eat. I’m going to approach the game the right way. I’m a pitcher, not a thrower.
“We know if a team generally struggles with breaking balls, or with a particular pitch. I’ll go into a game with an idea of throwing certain pitches to certain batters, or in certain counts, more than I normally would. But I’m never going to go into a game and say, ‘Today, I’m definitely going to throw at least X percent breaking balls.’
“Last year, I was facing Texas and over the first two innings it was evident they were looking for breaking pitches. They were taking good swings at them and weren’t really chasing. That told me I needed to pitch with my fastball. I started throwing a lot of fastballs and got a lot of outs that way.
“In another game, the Royals weren’t chasing my breaking ball out of the zone. I had to prove that it was going to be in the zone, and that I was going to be throwing a lot of them. It was going to be, ‘You can take three and go back to the dugout, or you can start hacking away at it.’ Once I saw their approach getting more aggressive, I started expanding the zone with my breaking ball.”
On his repertoire: “Last night, I got a couple of big outs with my changeup. I got Travis Shaw to roll over on one. I got Jackie Bradley on a changeup. But I’m a majority two-pitch guy. I’m going to throw my fastball to all four quadrants of the strike zone. I’m going to throw two different types of breaking balls, both of which I feel are plus-plus pitches.
“You can say I’m a two-pitch guy, that I’m fastball/breaking ball, but I’m giving batters different looks. I have two different shapes to my curveball. I have one that’s a little more up-down, 12-to-6ish, that hovers around 83, 84, 85. Then I have one that’s a harder break off of that shape; it’s more 86-88. Those are two clear pitches.
“I have a good changeup, but I have to trust it. That’s the problem. I know it’s my third-best pitch and in a lot of situations I don’t want to get beat with my third-best pitch, the worst pitch out of the bunch. But even that pitch — I know this because of how we break down pitches — can be plus-plus. It’s really up to me to just trust it and throw it.”
On his changeup as a two-seam fastball: “You could call it that. The old school thinking of a changeup is that it has to be 8-10 mph off the fastball, and it needs to look like a fastball. That’s the goal. Make it look like a fastball, but slower.
“The new-day-and-age changeup is more, ‘Throw with aggression; make it spin and kind of fall off the table.’ It’s not a pitch to get people off your fastball anymore. It’s a pitch to try to dominate left-handed hitters with, and to dominate guys who have a tough time with sinkers.
“If I’m facing a righty who has a tough time with fastballs in, sinkers in, that’s a perfect opportunity for me to throw my changeup. It has that kind of action and movement. I’m throwing 93-96 and touching 97. My changeup is anywhere from 85-87 and sometimes I’ll run it up there 91-92. For me, it’s the aggression factor. I’m coming downhill and throwing with full conviction, so if it’s 92 with great movement and arm speed, and I get the out, that’s just as good as an 85 swing and miss. It’s not about the speed differential for me.
“If it’s a punch-out situation, I’m going to throw it harder. I’m going to throw it 89-91, sometimes 92. The best changeup I threw all of last year was to Melky Cabrera and it was 94. It had the best movement, the best off-the-table kind of tailing action, and I got a great swing and miss on it.
“Look at Felix Hernandez. He’s been one of the most successful guys in recent memory with the changeup. Right now, he’s throwing his his fastball 90-91 and his changeup 87-88. Zack Greinke is another guy. Danny Salazar throws an unbelievable changeup and it’s almost like a left-handed slider.
“It’s not about slower pitches. There are plenty of hitters who can adjust to speed differential if they can tell it’s coming. If you’re one of those special guys, like Mike Morin for the Angels, who can have the same arm action and throw a 70-mph changeup, or a Scott Kazmir… more power to you. But I’m not that guy. My changeup is at its best when I rear back and throw it, and let the action dictate how the batter reacts.”
On his changeup grip: “I have kind of a vulcan grip. I split over the one seam with my index and middle fingers. My thumb is tucked kind of on the side, feeling the horseshoe of the seam. My ring and other finger are laid on the side. My main goal is to get a lot of sideways spin. I don’t throw a sinker, so I need to create a lot of spin on that pitch so the batter can’t really see the saucer spin. That’s another thing about throwing it hard. The harder I throw it, the more it’s going to spin, and the less chance a batter has to perceive that it’s a pitch he hasn’t seen before, and he’ll lay off it.
“A lot of power pitchers, like Greinke, (Max) Scherzer, (Matt) Harvey, (Jacob) deGrom — they all throw with a four-seam changeup grip. I tried that. Alex Cobb — another guy with a power arm and a big curveball — is the one that showed me the vulcan-like grip. He passed his grip on to me.”
On setting up hitters with spin: “A lot of people think about pitching as setting up the batter based on pitch location. I think more of setting up batters with spin. If I throw a good hard fastball with good backspin, and then rip over a curveball from that same slot, it’s going to be hard for the batter to tell the difference. It will be hard for him to tell the difference between the four-seam I just threw at the thigh, versus my hard, 12-6 breaking ball at the thigh.
“It doesn’t have to be the greatest location. It’s about fooling the batter. I’m trying to rip over my curveball as hard as I can to create as much downward spin as possible. I don’t want the batter being able to tell, based on the spin, which pitch is coming. A lot of hitters will talk about, ‘Oh, I hit in the cage with numbers on the ball,’ or ‘I hit in the cage with different color seams, because I’m trying to pick up the seams.’ Well, if you make your ball look like a cue ball, that’s going to give you the advantage even if the pitch wasn’t executed as well as it could have been. I got some outs last night on pitches that weren’t executed how I wanted. Because of the way I spin the ball, I was able to get away with them.
“I don’t know what my four-seam spin rate is, but my curveball is between 2,800 and 3,100 at any given time. I know my fastball spin could be better. Sometimes I get a little bit of a rifle spin to it, which is kind of the shape that a cutter would be, only it’s not cutting like a cutter.
“Will Harris has a great cutter. He throws with that rifle spin, but his ball is really cutting across the zone. Sometimes my fastball will be a little flat with rifle spin — it’s not cutting anywhere. It’s an easier pitch to hit. Basically, I’m trying to backspin my fastball, rip over my curveball, and trying to throw my changeup with as much sidespin as possible.”
On lines and angles: “To me, pitching is angles and lines. In my head, I draw straight lines toward where I want to throw balls, and I think about taking my body there. I vision it in my head. I vision that line and throw the pitch with intent.
“I put of lot of thought process into pitching, but that’s between starts. When I get out there, I’m probably one of the biggest bulldogs in the sense of, ‘Hey, I’m gripping it and I’m ripping it.’ It’s in the pen where I’m working on lines and angles, and on spin. In games, I let it all hang out. Sometimes that works out great; other times, I give up a five-spot in the second. But what we’re talking about is stuff that never enters my mind during the game itself. I’m not stepping off the mound and creating angles in my head.
“I was talking to Ken Giles earlier today about arm action. We were bouncing ideas off of each other. We’ll watch video together. I talk to Strommy (pitching coach Brent Strom) and CB (bullpen coach Craig Bjornson) about spin and angles. But again, when I cross that line, I’m all about battling. It’s just me and the batter. All bets are off and it’s just me and my competitive nature wanting to embarrass the batter. I’m not thinking anymore.”
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.