Entering the 2015 season, the Houston Astros looked to be far from a position of contention. They surprised the baseball world by competing out of the gate and keeping it up through the first half as the team currently holds the top spot in the AL West. A large catalyst for their success is their potent pitching staff, led by bearded ace Dallas Keuchel, with rookie Lance McCullers coming out of nowhere to dominate hitters. Entering his Wednesday outing against the Los Angeles Angels, McCullers held a 2.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and an elite 9.48 K/9 across 11 games started with no signs of slowing down. I have been impressed with the young stud all season, and took the time to watch his performance in Houston. Here is the GIF Breakdown of Lance McCullers from Wednesday night’s start featuring 12 HD GIFs.
As always, let’s first look at his strikezone plot for the evening:
It’s not the best strikezone plot that we’ve seen this season, but if there’s one major takeaway it’s that McCullers was attacking the zone. The biggest hole in McCullers’ game is his below-average walk rate – 3.18 BB/9 through all 12 starts – and seeing him consistently throwing strikes is a big positive given the movement on his pitches. His Curveball, while utilized to get batters to fish out of the zone, was most often found over the plate, giving hitters different looks. The biggest gripe is that he didn’t locate his Fastball too frequently down in the zone and let it sail up more than ideal, but it’s not egregious and his varied locations worked to his advantage.
Now let’s take a look at his pitches individually across the evening:
Fastball: 55.9% thrown, 94.4 MPH, -1.2 Runs Above Average
As with the large majority of pitchers, establishing your Fastball inside the zone early is critical for a successful night on the hill. McCullers’ first-strike rate could have been better (15/26), but he frequently opened at-bats with a Fastball like this one to David Murphy:
There isn’t a much better place to locate a first-pitch Fastball than outside on the black. Even when he missed, he was also able to recover like this 1-0 Fastball to Albert Pujols that was located so well that it earned him a quick out.
He was also able to elevate the pitch to help him earn a strikeout or two, like this well placed 95 MPH heater to Kole Calhoun:
It wasn’t all bliss with his Fastball, though. There were times it just didn’t come out like he wanted to and he was punished for it. Just watch this meatball to Carlos Perez that turned into a Double:
It was a 3-2 count and McCullers wanted to make sure that he didn’t issue a walk to the #9 hitter, so he grooved a 93 MPH Fastball down the middle. While I like his approach to trust his stuff when behind and not allow a walk, it does show a lack of Fastball polish. It’s an excellent raw pitch that has life to it, but for him McCullers to go to the next level, he needs to eliminate mistake pitches like these.
Curveball: 33.7% thrown, 84.4 MPH, 11.8 Runs Above Average
At 33.7% thrown, McCullers adores his Curveball, and for good reason. It’s generated 11.8 RAA this season, a result of a sharp, tight break mixed with an elite ability to consistently get it over the plate. Through the entire outing he was able to throw it for early strikes:
Induce whiffs to get ahead when in a hitter’s count:
Which helps him drop the hammer for the strikeout:
Often times excellent benders are reserved as a putaway pitch, while relying on a Changeup or Fastball to get ahead in the count. Not with McCullers, as he often got batters to roll over his Curveball and induce weak outs:
It was impressive to witness the versatility of McCuller’s Curveball across the frames as he could throw it at any point in each at-bat. There’s little reason why he should limit his confidence, as hitters are hitting a paltry .125 against it, and whiffing over 20% of the time. It’s easily Lance’s best pitch and the biggest factor for his early success.
Changeup: 10.4% thrown, 89.4 MPH, -1.4 Runs Above Average
McCullers is still figuring out his Changeup, which has above-average fade but isn’t consistent enough for him to favor often over his Fastball or Curveball. For example, there are times it flashed as the perfect addition to his repertoire with a first-pitch strike:
And it was also used to get batters planted on their front foot. Sometimes this worked like against David Murphy:
…and sometimes it didn’t:
He only threw ten Changeups total across the night, and only a handful that did what he wanted. He seemed to have abandoned the pitch as the game developed, favoring – like he should – his Curveball in situations that called for a secondary pitch. While having a solid third option is necessary for a higher ceiling, McCullers has the right idea to play more with a 1-2 combo than relying on his Changeup in tough situations. It will be interesting to see if he can develop it further through his career as it has shown the ability to be a very effective offering.
Final Line: 7.0 IP, 1 ER, 5 Hits, 0 BBs, 5 Ks.
The biggest positive for McCullers on this night was the goose egg in the walk column. He pounded the zone frequently, and was able to bounce back with a well located Fastball or a tight Curveball when behind. His Fastball command looks to be the primary area for growth, as developing better command paired with its lively movement will make it tough for hitters to get comfortable and on the defensive quickly. He has had issues this season keeping his Fastball in the zone, and Wednesday’s effort was a great step in the right direction. The biggest proponent of his success is a deadly Curveball that McCullers can throw in any count to attack hitters. The pitch is the jewel of his repertoire as it can generate whiffs, induce weak outs, and collect quick strikes that make batters fearful at any moment. His Changeup needs some polish, and while it has shown some promise, McCullers doesn’t have the same command for the pitch like he does his Curveball. There is potential for development, but it shouldn’t show up until 2016 if ever.
Walking few batters will be a key to McCullers’ success this season, and like Wednesday’s game, if he limits the free passes, it should be an easy day at the park. I currently have McCullers ranked at #35 on The List, and I see him holding his Top 40 spot for the rest of the season. There are talks of an innings limit, but given the tight playoff race it would be tough to imagine the Astros removing Lance from the rotation, especially if he continues performing like he did Wednesday night.
As always, I’ll leave you with a pitch that encapsulates a heavy focus of our featured pitcher. Here Lance McCullers spots a 1-0 Fastball down and away to Albert Pujols to climb back into the count: