McCullers is the ace that the Astros have been looking for this year. They don’t need to pay up for another frontline starter before the trade deadline.
A chasm has opened up in the market for starting pitching as the trade deadline approaches. To this point we’ve seen Drew Pomeranz (2016 ERA: 2.84, Career ERA: 3.73), Drew Storen (2016 ERA: 7.01, Career ERA: 3.39), Lucas Harrell (2016 ERA: 3.38, Career ERA: 4.74), and Andrew Cashner (2016 ERA: 4.76, Career ERA: 3.73) change teams.
Those names are a far cry from the “ace” caliber starters rumored to still be available on the market like Chris Sale (2016 ERA: 3.17, Career ERA: 2.95), Sonny Gray (2016 ERA: 5.43, Career ERA: 3.34), and Chris Archer (2016 ERA: 4.42, Career ERA: 3.54).
Pomeranz has been a reliable three or four starter for most of his big league career, but his only All-Star appearance came this year with San Diego. When the Red Sox acquired Pomeranz from the San Diego Padres they did so in exchange for their top pitching prospect, Anderson Espinoza. If any team wants to pry away a perennial Cy-Young candidate Chris Sale from the White Sox, it’s going to cost a lot more than that.
Dallas Kuechel’s early season struggles have kept the Astros in the center of the starting pitching rumor mill for several months now. If anyone has the quality and measure of prospects to land a front line pitcher its Houston, but is the front office willing to part with the likes of Alex Bregman, David Paulino, Francis Martes, A.J. Reed, or Preston Tucker? Unlikely.
But they might not need to sell the farm to improve their rotation. Since giving up seven runs in six innings against the Rangers on May 22nd, Keuchel has a 3.39 ERA with nine quality starts in 11 appearances, never surrendering more than four earned runs in a game. He’s not in 2015 Cy-Young form, but he’s drastically improved from the 5.92 ERA in his first ten starts this season.
And then there’s 22-year-old Lance McCullers. The young righty has a career 3.21 ERA in 35 starts with the Astros after making his debut on May 18th last year. After a somewhat shaky start, just like the rest of the rotation, McCullers has been impressive.
In the month of July McCullers’ has a 2.08 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 30 and 1/3 innings. In that span, he has allowed an average of five hits per game and just six extra-base hits. Of the major league pitchers who have made five starts in July, only Tanner Roark and Stephen Strasburg allowed fewer extra base hits than McCullers and only Marlins ace Jose Fernandez had more strikeouts (46).
McCullers averages 93.7 mph on his fastball. That’s nearly four mph faster than every member of the rest of the starting rotation. What separates him from the rest of the league is his knuckle curve. Batters are hitting just .133 against his curve ball this season with a 58.3% contact rate and a 45.7% strikeout rate.
Almost 50% of all the pitches he has thrown this year (49.8%) have been the knuckle curve. Essentially this means that opposing hitters know the pitch he is going to throw and can’t do anything about it. McCullers has thrown 633 knuckle curves in 2016 and has allowed just 23 hits and no home runs. This young hurler isn’t just becoming an ace. He is an ace. And the Astros don’t need to go shopping for anyone else.
***Stats from Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs ***