Astros 2020 Year in Review: Lance McCullers post surgery

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 21: Lance McCullers Jr. (L) #43 speaks with Martin Maldonado #15 and manager Dusty Baker Jr. #12 after giving up a three-run home run to Evan White #12 of the Seattle Mariners in the seventh inning at T-Mobile Park on September 21, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners lead 4-0 on the play. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 21: Lance McCullers Jr. (L) #43 speaks with Martin Maldonado #15 and manager Dusty Baker Jr. #12 after giving up a three-run home run to Evan White #12 of the Seattle Mariners in the seventh inning at T-Mobile Park on September 21, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners lead 4-0 on the play. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /
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Lance McCullers had an inconsistent 2020 for the Houston Astros after his surgery.

The 2020 Houston Astros dealt with injuries all season, but one key starter, Lance McCullers Jr., returned from Tommy John surgery. The righty missed all of the 2019 season and was one of the main reasons former GM Jeff Luhnow went after Zack Greinke to help replace him for the postseason. McCullers is a one time All-Star but didn’t seem to be back to his dominant form in 2020.

Regular Season

The Astros lost Gerrit Cole to free agency and Justin Verlander to Tommy John early in the year, so they looked to McCullers as their ace. Yet, we didn’t see that McCullers was really back. He struggled, to say the least, much like many Astros stars. Even with a small sample size of only 60 games, McCullers wasn’t finding his groove until September. This is understandable for a guy who is coming off a tough surgery and really no time to be ramped up.

McCullers’ ERA splits for the regular season months were 5.40 (July), 4.94 (August) and 1.53 (September). There was a huge improvement in his command and control of pitches. A lot of analysis came down to him jamming himself and forcing walks, but his walk rate would drop and his hit rate would increase. He needed time to find his arm again, and it took two months of starts to do that.

Long-haired McCullers was electric in the month of September. He dropped his season ERA from 5.79 to 3.93 over four starts, and if the regular season had kept going, we would’ve seen a huge progression. He was finally finding the zone and keeping the hang off his curve. He also battled some neck nerve irritation and hit the 10-day IL in early September, which was a big injury slate for the Astros as a whole.

Postseason

McCullers was added to his fourth postseason roster (2015, 2017, 2018) in 2020. After great management from Dusty Baker, we didn’t see McCullers used at all in the Wild Card round. We then got to see a fresh version of him in the ALDS who had not pitched since Sept. 26.

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We did not see a great showing from him, and it seemed his 2020 struggles came back to him. He went four innings giving up five runs while fanning five batters. The bullpen would end up locking down the game, while the hot bats for the Astros were continuing their reign.

Moving onto the ALCS, we saw a stronger McCullers. After shaking off a rough start, he powered through seven innings of Game Two, but a Jose Altuve error led to a three-run homer. The bats weren’t alive that game, and the Astros fell 4-2, even though McCullers fanned 11 batters and walked none. Then the dreaded Game Seven McCullers was back. Through 3.2 innings, he surrendered three runs, which was enough for the Tampa Bay Rays to win. Yet he still showed signs of life with seven strikeouts and one walk.

Future

McCullers is under team control until the end of the 2021 season and then will be a free agent. Depending on how next season shakes out, we could definitely see the Astros making a move to bring him back. If he’s not back to his All Star form, then they can have him settle for less money.

If he can work this offseason and get to where he was in September, then we can see an All-Star appearance from him once again, but the 2021 season will definitely be a test to see if McCullers can be elite while fully healthy. If everything falls into place, he could even be the 2021 Opening Day starter.

Grade: B-

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