Houston Astros 30 Players in 30 Days: Lance McCullers
In November of 2011, the Houston Astros lost Clint Barmes to the Pittsburgh Pirates. As compensation for losing Barmes to free agency, the Astros received a supplementary pick at the back end of the 2012 MLB Draft’s first round. With the 41st overall pick, the Astros would select a hard-throwing right-hander out of high school by the name of Lance McCullers Jr. Most scouting reports said something of this nature about McCullers: a hard-throwing pitcher with a great breaking ball, but has control issues and a high-effort delivery; he best profiles as a closer. In his first full season at A-ball, McCullers had a 3.18 ERA with Quad Cities, but struggled in the hitter-friendly California League in 2014 and his ERA ballooned to 5.47 with a 1.56 WHIP.
Coming into 2015, McCullers was an afterthought as far as making the Astros rotation at any point in the season, but his performance at Double-A Corpus Christi quickly changed those thoughts. McCullers made six appearances (four starts) with the Hooks and hitters didn’t stand a chance: 29 IP, 2 ER, 43 Ks, 0.90 WHIP. On May 14, the Astros promoted the 6’2″ pitcher to Triple-A, but he would never throw a pitch with Fresno. Just one day later, the Astros would place Brett Oberholtzer on the disabled list and promote McCullers to make his major-league debut on May 18 against the Oakland A’s.
McCullers impressed in his debut, allowing one earned run over 4 2/3 innings while striking out five, but walked three. He would get his first MLB win in his next start in Detroit: 6 IP, 2 ER, 6 Ks, 1 BB. His best start of the 2015 season would come two starts later at home against the Baltimore Orioles.
On June 3, McCullers took the mound against the Orioles and showed just how dominant he can be at the big-league level. He mowed through a lineup that included Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis. Of those three players, only Jones hit McCullers, and he struck out members of the trio five times in 12 at-bats. The then 21-year-old McCullers would go the distance, allowing one run, four hits, no walks while striking out 11.
At the All-Star break, McCullers had an impressive line with the Astros: 2.52 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, .202 vs. AVG, and 71 Ks over 64 1/3 innings. He would throw two more strong starts, including a seven-inning, one run victory against the Los Angeles Angels before his roughest outing of the season.
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On August 3, the Astros and Texas Rangers played in Arlington with McCullers going up against Colby Lewis. Correa hit a two-run home run in the first inning to give the team a 2-0 lead, but McCullers would need more room than that. According to Baseball Reference, the sequence of events in the bottom of the first inning for McCullers would go as follows:
- Single to RF
- Single to LF (run scores)
- Triple to LF (two runs score)
- Single to CF (run scores)
- Strikeout swinging
- Home Run (two runs score)
- Single to LF
- Single to CF
- Josh Fields replaces Lance McCullers pitching
McCullers would go through the lineup one time and only record one out before he gave up six earned runs and was replaced by Josh Fields. The outing raised his ERA 69 points to 3.17.
After the outing, the Astros’ rotation was spent covering the final 8+ innings and the team optioned McCullers to Double-A in part to also rest his arm for the final stretch of the season. McCullers did not appear in a game with Corpus Christi until Aug. 18 when he threw three innings in a tune-up start to rejoin the Astros.
McCullers made his return to the big-league rotation on Aug. 23 and tossed seven innings in a win against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He would not allow more than three earned runs in a game through the end the season and six of his eight games were quality starts.
2015 pitching line: 6-7, 22 Games, 125 2/3 IP, 3.22 ERA, 1.186 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 3.1 BB/9.
Just like the Astros, McCullers was a pleasant surprise in 2015, and if you take away his clunker start in Arlington, he would have a 2.80 ERA. By the time postseason play started, there was no question that McCullers would factor into the team’s rotation.
McCullers’ number was called upon in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Kansas City Royals, but his performance gets lost in all of the heartbreak and disappointment of that game. The young righty was almost flawless, only allowing a two-run home run to Salvador Perez in the second inning. He would battle through 6 1/3 innings and strikeout seven Royals before he hit Perez with one out in the seventh and was replaced by Will Harris.
More Houston Astros Season Recaps:
- Vince Velasquez
- Tony Sipp
- Jonathan Villar
- Preston Tucker
- Mike Fiers
- Hank Conger
- Chad Qualls
- Jon Singleton
- Joe Thatcher
- Marwin Gonzalez
- Josh Fields
- Jake Marisnick
- Pat Neshek
- Jed Lowrie
- Luis Valbuena
- Scott Feldman
- Evan Gattis
- Will Harris
- Luke Gregerson
- Chris Carter
- Jason Castro
- Scott Kazmir
- Carlos Gomez
What to expect in 2016
McCullers can be one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball, but there are many cautionary tales of breakout rookies that have fallen fast. At worst, he is a strong middle of the rotation player or dominant closer.
At best, McCullers continues to develop his already devastating breaking ball and hard changeup to match his mid-90s fastball. Astros fans should know of a pitcher with a “high effort” delivery, mid-90s fastball and hard breaking secondary pitch. Is it too early to make the Roy Oswalt comparisons? After 2015, I’m not sure it is.