Houston Astros: Taking Lance McCullers and turning him into an ace


Most pitchers struggle. That is not a groundbreaking statement to begin an article with, but one that is worth emphasizing at the outset of this article. Clayton Kershaw is not most pitchers.

Kershaw was taken seventh overall in the 2006 MLB draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Those drafted ahead of him? Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Evan Longoria, Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow and Andrew Miller. Most of the aforementioned players have become quiz answers, with the obvious exception of Longoria.

Kershaw was the sixth pitcher taken, the second lefty (side note: the Astros first rounder that year, catcher Maxwell Sapp out of Bishop Moore High School in Orlando; Hank Conger was taken two picks later. Sapp nearly died after contracting meningitis, see this Astros County post on the whole saga.).

Each season he spent in the minor leagues, he remained atop the MLB top prospects list and became an All-Star and a Cy Young winner by the age of 23. If you were to have a debate about who is the best pitcher in baseball, or even what player you would want to build your franchise around, there’s a good chance that Kershaw’s name would feature prominently in either discussion.

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One of the major improvements that the Astros made this offseason was in the bullpen. This has been discussed, both on this site and elsewhere, at great length.

One of the marks of the great Houston Astros sides of the past has been the man starting the game on the mound. The last really great season for an Astros pitcher was Roger Clemens (doesn’t the twitter chatter prospect of Clemens returning to the Astros lineup seem like it was so long ago now? It was only three years) 2005 efforts, though the 6.7 WARs that Roy Oswalt gave the team in 2007 is also worth noting.

In 2009, the Astros selected Arkansas leftie Dallas Keuchel in the seventh round of the amateur draft. Keuchel pitched 83 games in the minors before cementing his place in the Astros rotation. Despite the struggles of the team during his early years, Keuchel quickly underlined his credentials with a 108 pitch complete game in only his second start, an 8-1 win over Cleveland.

Over the 2012 season, his ERA was consistently over four, topping out at 5.60 and averaging at 5.27. At the time of writing, Keuchel is one of the leading candidates for the AL’s Cy Young award, an award that would round off an excellent season from the 27-year-old who has 13 wins and an ERA of 2.35.

He’s fourth in WAR for pitchers, seventh in ERA, joint second in wins, ninth in win-loss percentage, second in innings pitched and, well, I could go on. Suffice to say we are witnessing a great season from our current ace.

Meanwhile, this week, Lance McCullers returned to Corpus Christi after a tough outing against the Texas Rangers on Aug. 3, where he took the loss despite only pitching 1/3 of an inning, giving up seven hits for six runs. The game saw his ERA shoot up to 3.17 and AJ Hinch decided that it was time to give Lance a respite from the majors, for the time being.

Mark Appel, on the other hand, continues to struggle to find consistency in the minor leagues, currently sitting with a 1-2 record and a 4.45 ERA with Fresno; his cumulative ERA for the year (AA and AAA) is 4.33 and his career ERA is 5.23.  He is still some way off being ready.

I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that McCullers’s rapid development as a credible starting option for the Astros was surprising. Until that game in Arlington, his ERA had only been above 2.50 on three occasions: his second game (2.53), his 11th (2.52) and his 12th (2.60). His 13th game saw him throw seven innings against the Angels, earning his fifth win of the season.

McCullers is still only 21 and spending a bit of time back in the minors should hopefully be the perfect solution to the battering he took against Texas, allowing him to regain his confidence to hopefully make a permanent slot for himself in the starting rotation next season.

Do we need to remember that we are asking McCullers to become something resembling an ace (interesting question for you: what is your best-case-expectation for Lance? Our 1? Perhaps a 3?) at a time when the Astros are on the rise and expectations are soaring. Individual games matter.

With that in mind and, with the obvious priority of protecting his young stud, Lance now finds himself a few miles south in Corpus Christi – but for how long? We will have to wait and see.

Baseball America had an interesting post back in February where JJ Cooper assessed what attributes were necessary to make a successful starting pitcher. He noted that there were 30 pitchers who made up the 2009 Top Prospects list still pitching in 2014. In this post, he assessed a number of former starters who ended up in the bullpen for a variety of reasons.

The recurring issues were a consistency of pitches, wildness, lack of control, delivery issues and ineffectiveness, summarized as “fringe average fastball”, “poor delivery” and “inability to throw strikes”. Injuries also played a role in the “demotion” of these players, though I use the inverted commas because while pitching in relief is not starting, it’s hardly being ejected from the game altogether.

Looking at McCullers’s performances so far this season, his pitch/strike ratio is (all games) 93/54, 100/62, 89/52, 107/73, 96/66, 90/48, 88/51, 104/57, 102/66, 101/60, 93/61, 89/52, 99/62 and 43/26. His looking/swinging ratio has been interesting, too: 22/5, 20/7, 18/8, 22/15, 14/17, 20/4, 15/15, 16/7, 21/8, 15/5, 21/11, 11/6, 18/9 and 6/4.

If we compare these numbers to Dallas Keuchel‘s stats, and bearing in mind that McCullers is still very fresh, they are quite impressive, though Keuchel tempts batters into swinging with more frequency (lowest number of swinging strikes in a game was four back in April against the Padres).

So it’s fair to say that McCullers ability to throw strikes is not a major concern at the moment. He finds the zone pretty well.

Brooks Baseball notes that McCullers prefers to throw his four seam fastball and his curve, and though he rarely throws a sinker (seven total at the time of writing), he mixes in a changeup to his repertoire. His fourseamer and curveballs are above average in the sense that both draw more groundballs than average pitchers.

McCullers actually gained speed on all of his pitches, on average, as we reached August. His fastball release speed averaged at 96.07 mph, up from the 95.24 it hit in May – it topped out at 98.45 mph. His changeup averaged at 90.96 and his curve 85.91, both highs for the season to date.  He did lose a little movement on his curve, though, with both horizontal and vertical movement dropping.

Getting sent back to the minors is no disgrace for McCullers.  Clayton Kershaw may have only played two games in the minors since 2008 (whilst rehabbing last season), but we’re not asking him to be Clayton Kershaw. The Astros have gone out in recent weeks and acquired Scott Kazmir, and Mike Fiers to boost the starting rotation, and there was significant speculation that Cole Hamels was also on Jeff Luhnow’s radar.

Our starting rotation is serious and the inevitable return of a refreshed McCullers will only enhance it.  The problem is going to be finding spots for all these guys.

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