Astros: Looking into the lack of first-pitch strikes from Lance McCullers

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Lance McCullers Jr.
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Lance McCullers Jr. /

Let’s discuss Lance McCullers and how he doesn’t throw many first-pitch strikes. I know, what a random topic.

The Astros had six pitchers, including position players masquerading as pitchers, last season who threw a first-pitch strike less than the league average. This statement, by itself, is not particularly noteworthy.

Until you find one name which stands out: Lance McCullers.

As you all may know, McCullers was an All-Star pitcher last season. Injuries eventually derailed his second half, yet he did finish the season with a 3.0 fWAR in 118.2 innings. It is fair to wonder how well he would’ve finished the season if injuries weren’t part of the equation. That seems to be the prevailing thorn in McCullers’ side throughout his young professional career.

Anyway, McCullers has not been known to throw a ton of first-pitch strikes. In fact, he has been below the league average in each major league season for his career. The league average, for context sake, is roughly 60% to 61% over the past three seasons.

2015: 57.1%

2016: 56.5%

2017: 55.7%

Again, McCullers has been below-average for his major league career at generating first-pitch strikes. That said, this shouldn’t be used as an indictment on McCullers. A pitcher doesn’t have to throw a ton of first-pitch strikes to be effective. However, you do find that the best pitchers typically throw more than the league average of first-pitch strikes. Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Jose Quintana, well, you get the idea.

If you sort the Fangraphs’ leaderboards by starting pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings last season by first-pitch strike rate, you can also find the following names at the bottom levels in the first-pitch strike category, in no particular order: Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Francisco Liriano, Tyler Chatwood, Lance Lynn, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson. Some are good pitchers; some are bad pitchers. There are more pitchers with a lower first-pitch strike rate than McCullers, but these were a few names that happen to stand out to me.

Brooks Baseball has a pitch usage chart, found here, which breaks down the percentage of certain pitches are thrown in different counts. Against right-handed batters on 0-0 counts, McCullers primarily threw a sinker instead of a curveball as his first-pitch. The same trend occurs when he faces a left-handed batter with less extreme usage splits. Interestingly enough, McCullers is more apt to throw his curveball against left-handed batters as his first offering, which is arguably his best pitch. This could be attributed to the breaking action away from left-handed batters, as you can further tell here in his appearance against the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS. Of course, a curveball isn’t necessarily the best pitch to use as first-pitch, especially if you are hunting strikes.

Either way you slice it, McCullers’ curveball was quite effective overall last season.

Right-handed batters hit only .206 against the offering. Left-handed batters had a .175 batting average against. In fact, the curveball was his only effective pitch against both right- and left-handed batters.

The other three offerings, a four-seam fastball, change up, and sinker, all had batting averages against right-handed batters of at least .273 up to .429. I do speculate that the sinker could be quite similar to his four-seam fastball, or the other way around. Each have similar movements horizontally and vertically. Regardless of the classification, the pitch classified as a sinker performed much better against left-handed batters.

In terms of the first pitch though, McCullers’ curveball was the worst with a .438 batting average against and a .688 slugging percentage. Batters had a .400 BABIP against the pitch in 0-0 counts. And it didn’t matter which batter hand he faced. In fact, the only pitch that McCullers threw that had a batting average below .300 in 0-0 counts was his four-seam fastball at .250, and he only threw a four-seam fastball 67 times in a 0-0 count. Again, this could’ve been a sinker, but I’ll keep the Brooks Baseball classifications. McCullers also threw his curveball 182 times as a first-pitch and his sinker 307 times. This could explain, partially at least, McCullers’ struggles in the first-pitch strike department.

Another explanation could be the reality of a 0-0 count. Here is McCullers’ heatmap on pitches thrown exclusively in a 0-0 count.

And here is McCullers’ heatmap on pitches thrown in any count except 0-0.

As you can tell from the graphics, McCullers likes to throw his pitches in the lower half of the zone. And McCullers is a ground ball pitcher in a lot of ways. However, on 0-0 counts, he tends to throw a bit higher up in the zone towards the left-handed batter side of the plate. It is a bit more difficult to generate ground balls on the first pitch, which leads away from McCullers’ strength as a pitcher.

It is now starting to make sense why McCullers isn’t the best at generating first-pitch strikes.

A pitcher typically wants to throw closer and inside the zone when seeking a first-pitch strike. Like, a four-seam fastball. A sinker is more common, yet his didn’t have the best results in a 0-0 count. The curveball and sinker are meant to generate contact for ground balls.

McCullers’ best pitch, a curveball, isn’t an offering consistently used in a 0-0 count when you’re looking for a strike. A curveball is best used when looking for a second or third strike, which depends on the count and the specific situation. And McCullers’ curveball does generate a fair share of ground balls. But if a curveball misses on the first-pitch, it can change the entire at-bat. A first-pitch curveball can be used on occasion, though, to keep batters honest. One exception is Game 7 of the ALCS. In that game though, McCullers’ curveball was clearly on a whole other level.

I assume that most pitchers are looking for that first-pitch strike. They want to gain an advantage over the batter in nearly every way possible. And a first-pitch strike allows a pitcher to liberally use their arsenal in the at-bat. For example, a batter is more likely to take a wild swing at a curveball breaking out of the zone on a 0-1 count than a 1-0 count.

Next: Astros: You should bank on Charlie Morton in 2018

This is, again, not indictment of McCullers, the pitcher. When everything is clicking and his body is healthy, he is probably the most dynamic starter on staff not named Justin Verlander. This is just a piece of random plate discipline data I randomly found searching the leaderboards in this slow off-season. And it got me wondering about how much an effect there could be on McCullers if he threw more four-seam fastballs or sinkers in 0-0 counts. Would it be effective, and if so, could his first-pitch strike rate increase? I don’t have the answer, but I thought it was worth discussing.

**Statistics and information courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball**