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Astros: Lance McCullers Jr. – The hero the Astros’ rotation deserves

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 13: Lance McCullers Jr. #43 of the Houston Astros celebrates after retiring the side in the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox during Game One of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park on October 13, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 13: Lance McCullers Jr. #43 of the Houston Astros celebrates after retiring the side in the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox during Game One of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park on October 13, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images) /
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Lance McCullers Jr. is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and now is the time for Houston’s Caped Crusader to rise.

Ever since arriving in Houston with the big league team in 2015, Lance McCullers Jr. has added to his heroic resume on and off the field. Not just his fire twitter game, Fortnite streams, or amazing hair have caused him to be a fan-favorite. No one will ever forget the 24 straight curveballs to wrinkle the Yankees’ brains and send the Astros to their second-ever World Series.

LMC also added to his own folklore by knocking in a run during the deciding game seven of the 2017 World Series. On top of McCullers’ on the field heroics, the man himself is a wonderful dude. He created the Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation and has dedicated much of his time to protecting animals and saving animals’ lives. He has even reached out to taunted, mistreated and needy fans by rewarding them with tickets and experiences.

For as much good as we’ve seen McCullers do off the field it has been some time since he’s gotten to add to his Houston legacy on the field. Tommy John surgery put him on the shelf for the entire 2019 season. Even before UCL surgery, he has battled back injuries, elbow discomfort, and blisters.

However, when No. 43 is healthy and pitching every fifth day, he competes at an All-Star level. After losing Gerrit Cole to the Yankees in free agency and no proven starters in the rotation behind Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, McCullers will be the hero of the Houston Astros’ pitching rotation.

He is entering age-27 season this year, which is prime time for many pitchers at the MLB level. Shaking off the rust and working back from Tommy John surgery is difficult for a pitcher of any age, but the Astros and McCullers have taken it slow and made sure he didn’t work too fast and have any setbacks. On March 6, he’ll be a full 16 months removed from going under the knife.

Outside of Verlander and Greinke, the Houston Astros’ pitching rotation isn’t set. Jose Urquidy showed good stuff at the end of last season and into the playoffs but hasn’t been great this spring. Framber Valdez and Josh James weren’t great during the season last year but have been pretty darn good so far this spring.

A recent acquisition, Austin Pruitt doesn’t have eye-popping numbers from his time with Tampa Bay but in the three innings pitching under Brent Strom he hasn’t looked bad, only allowing one hit and no walks. Top prospect Forrest Whitley is continuing his rollercoaster-like ascent to the major leagues but hasn’t shown enough to make any of us think he’s exactly ready for Major League competition. Outside of the two aces, McCullers is the only starting pitcher listed on the Astros depth chart with extended Major League success.

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Armed with a unique arsenal in his utility belt, McCullers is unlike any other Major League starter. According to Baseball Savant, he throws his curveball 46.6 percent of the time. Similar to the Dark Knight going to his trusty Batarang, McCullers throws the curveball on a consistent basis. Despite being in the top 73rd percentile for fastball velocity and the top half of the league in fastball spin rate, he only throws something hard and straight less than one percent of the time.

To give a little context as to how unheard of it is for a pitcher to rely that heavily on an off-speed pitch, in 2019 Adam Wainwright led the league in percentage of curves thrown at 37.6 percent. The only pitcher within an arm’s reach of the 40 percent mark on a pitch that isn’t a fastball was Clayton Kershaw and his slider at 39.6 percent.

Leaning heavily on the Uncle Charlie and sinking pitches is what led to an All-Star first half for McCullers in 2017. That season saw him pitch a mostly healthy season and the results are what you would expect from a healthy LMC.

The superior movement on his curveball, sinker and changeup allowed a 4.6 barrelled percentage in the 2017 campaign. This barrel percentage would put McCullers in elite status if repeated. Jacob deGrom, one of the game’s absolute best pitchers, is averaging a 4.55 barrel percentage over the past two seasons, both of which seasons deGrom has won a Cy Young award.

This interesting arsenal of pitches, the quality of those pitches, and the ability to miss the barrel of the bat make McCullers’ re-emergence as one of the most important storylines for the Astros’ rotation. There is no guarantee that a pitcher recovering from UCL surgery can regain the strength and skill from before the surgery but with his youth, determination and tenacity, it is hard to believe he won’t find a way to get back to his All-Star form.

On Sunday, McCullers returned to the big league mound in his first Spring Training outing. It didn’t last long — 16 pitches — but that isn’t because he didn’t look good. The Astros are doing right by him, letting him tip-toe into the shallow end and build back up his full arm strength.

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In those 16 pitches, he threw 10 for strikes, allowed one hit and struck out Paul Goldschmidt on an “Ice-Man” patented curveball. McCullers stood tall on the mound, the wind tousled his illustrious hair and he reclaimed his position as H-Town’s very own Caped Crusader, albeit only for a little while.

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