This morning, Paul Swydan posted our Staff Predictions for the 2017 season. Because most of the people who write for FanGraphs, RotoGraphs, or The Hardball Times are at least a little bit data-oriented, the picks end up being pretty similar to what our projections say. The Cubs have the best team in the NL Central, and statistically, they have the best chance of winning the division, so they’re the logical choice for everyone to predict as the NL Central winner. Mike Trout is the logical pick for AL MVP, now that voters have shown they’ll give him the award even if his team doesn’t win, because he’s the best player in the league. And so on and so on.
But as we’ve noted before, projections are not predictions. Projections are the mean outcome in a probability distribution, and aim to identify the area in the middle of a bell curve. But the most likely outcome in of a series of possible outcomes may itself still be quite unlikely. A curve with probabilities of 10%, 15%, 25%, 25%, 15%, and 10% would result in a projection around the 25% probability marks, but you wouldn’t want to confidently predict that the 25% outcome is likely to occur, because 75% of the time, your prediction would be “wrong”.
So, if you look at the staff predictions table, you’ll notice that I made a few non-traditional picks. I went with the Yankees in the AL East, for instance, and I picked Lance McCullers to win the AL Cy Young. I don’t think the Yankees are the best team in their division, nor do I think McCullers is the best pitcher in the American League, but the fun thing about baseball is that, in one season, the results aren’t governed by the bell curves. Weird things happen, and since our predictions are just meaningless guesses, we might as well have fun with them and try to give ourselves a chance to say “I told you so!” in six months.
But I didn’t pick Lance McCullers to win the Cy Young just to be contrarian. While it’s pretty likely that a Chris Sale or a Corey Kluber has higher odds of winning right now, a healthy McCullers might have better odds than his reputation would suggest.
A healthy McCullers isn’t something we’ve seen a lot of lately. He started 2016 on the DL due to a shoulder problem and ended it on the DL due to an elbow problem, and he may well be the new Rich Harden, a guy with tantalizing stuff but without the durability needed to make 30 starts a year. But when McCullers has been on the mound, he’s been electric.
Among AL starters who have thrown at least 200 innings the last two years, McCuller’s 27% strikeout rate is tied (with Kluber) for fourth-best in the league, behind only Sale, Chris Archer, and Carlos Carrasco. Along with missing a lot of bats, he also has posted the league’s lowest home run rate during the last two years, as he’s a groundball pitcher who avoids balls in the air when batters do make contact against him.
A pitcher who gets both strikeouts and groundballs is almost always throwing pretty special stuff, and McCullers is no different. From a start last July, here’s a visual sample of what he can do when he’s not hurt.
You see a bunch of knockout curveballs in there, and it’s the pitch he’s probably known the best for. Because along with Rich Hill, he’s attempting to redefine what normal curveball usage looks like for a guy with that kind of hook.
Last year, almost half the pitches McCullers threw were curveballs; the other half were split between his fastball and his change-up at roughly 40%/10% respectively. Hill threw 42% curveballs last year, the only other guy over the 40% mark with his breaking ball, so even among extreme curveball users, McCullers was still on an island by himself.
There’s a reason McCullers throws curveballs all the time; it’s really good. Last year, hitters had the second-highest swing rate against his curve of any pitcher in baseball, and even despite opponents offering at it half the time, he still recorded the seventh-highest whiff rate on those swings. He can throw it in the zone for called strikes or out of the zone for swinging strikes, and the velocity and movement make it a difficult pitch for opponents to handle.
Rich Hill has gone to a curveball-heavy arsenal because his fastball isn’t anything special. McCullers, though, sits 94 and can run it up into the high-90s, so he’s something like baseball’s first junkballer who also happens to have elite velocity. With that combination, it’s not a big wonder that he misses so many bats.
Of course, breaking balls are also generally thrown out of the strike zone, so McCullers has also had some walk issues, running a 10% walk rate thus far in his career. The strikeouts and groundballs have limited damage enough that the walks haven’t hurt him, but to take the next step, McCullers is going to have to throwing so many balls. Thankfully, Hill’s success at cutting his walk rate nearly in half shows that it is possible for a curveball-heavy pitcher to avoid walks, and if McCullers can make the necessary adjustments, he could be as unhittable as anyone in the league.
And hittability might be one of the big variables that could shift McCullers from good pitcher to great pitcher. Last year, he allowed a .383 BABIP, so when hitters were putting the bat on the ball, bad things were happening. But in looking at his Statcast data, the quality of contact doesn’t seem to suggest that McCullers was regularly getting rocked.
On average, among pitchers with 150 tracked balls by Statcast last year, 39% of batted balls were hit at least 95 mph; McCullers checked in at 38.7%. 6.4% of all batted balls were classified as “Barrels”, the combination of exit velocity and launch angle that combine to do the most damage; McCullers was at 5.5%. McCullers did give up harder than average contact in the air, but he gave up weaker contact than average on the ground, and remember, half of his batted balls go on the ground.
As a guy who hangs some breaking balls in the zone and doesn’t have great command, McCullers probably won’t be a pitcher who outperforms his peripherals. He doesn’t get a lot of pop flies, for instance, which is one of the best ways to keep your BABIP down. But there also doesn’t appear to be a lot of evidence that McCullers is just throwing meatballs that get crushed when they aren’t missed, and that he’s going to run higher-than-average BABIPs in the future.
With some positive regression in his BABIP, McCullers should face fewer batters per inning, and even if an offsetting negative regression in his strand rate keeps his ERA at a similar level, he should be more efficient and be able to work deeper into games. The rate stats for a Cy Young winner are already there; he just needs the quantity of innings to win voters over, and some BABIP regression could help with that.
Of course, this all comes down to health. It wouldn’t be wise to project McCullers to throw 200 innings this year, given that he’s never done it, but that’s why this is a prediction and not a projection. If McCullers can figure out how to keep his arm healthy for six months, he’s got Cy Young ability. I don’t know that he will stay healthy, but if he does, this vote won’t look as crazy in November.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.