While many consider Lance McCullers one of the Astros' young cornerstones, not many realize how good he is already. At the moment, Lance McCullers is already really, really, good. Like, Cy Young worthy good.
When healthy in 2016, Lance McCullers was one of the top pitchers in the league. His FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching, a more accurate ERA estimator) was the second lowest among starting pitchers in the American League. His xFIP was the lowest in the American League. Only one pitcher in the American League struck out batters at a higher rate than Lance McCullers, and he maintained healthy basic stats (3.22 ERA, 6-5 record) while having the highest BABIP (Batted Average on Balls in Play - a luck indicator) of any starting pitcher in the league.
That's not to say Lance McCullers doesn't have things to improve on - McCullers had the second highest walk-rate of any starting pitcher in major league baseball, and could use a little work on his changeup, but as it stands McCullers is clearly one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. He has stated in the past week that he is excited to get to work with former Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt, who arrived to West Palm Beach earlier this morning and will work with Astros pitchers throughout the day.
At this point the biggest question mark for McCullers is health - if he can get the innings under his belt in 2017, there is little doubt in my mind that he will be in the Cy Young conversation. As is the case for young fast ball throwers like McCullers, staying healthy for an entire season will prove to be challenging. McCullers' 2016 campaign was cut short due to a mid-elbow strain, and while he the injury reportedly won't effect him going into next season, the Astros are certain to be very cautious when dealing with their young ace.
McCullers is reportedly changing his arm motion a little bit to alleviate the natural stress caused by throwing so many fastballs and high-heat curveballs, something he tinkered with in 2016 but is more comfortable with now. That change, along with more practice controlling his command, could prove huge for Lance McCullers going into this upcoming season.
It's honestly amazing that McCullers has been so effective (3.22 ERA in both 2015, 2016) thus far with a relatively low amount of command as well as only having two reliable pitches. That's just a testament to McCullers' arm, as his mid-90's fastball and killer mid-80's curveball, the fastest curveball by any starting pitcher in baseball, has been so devastating to opposing hitters. McCullers will have all of Spring Training to work on his command and change-ups, which should make him all the deadlier in 2017.
While control may never be a strength for McCullers, working his walks down to a respectable number shouldn't be impossible. Furthermore, an addition of an effective third pitcher could make McCullers virtually un-hittable.
Finally, I would argue that McCullers does not have to worry about working deep into games. For those who may not know, McCullers has struggled in the past two seasons on keeping his pitch count down in the early innings. Yes, he has pitched a couple of unbelievable complete games where he looked dominant, a lot of starters can tend to fall on the short end.
It would definitely be nice if McCullers could work deep into games, but it should be the least of his worries. The Astros have a solid bullpen headed into the 2017 season, with guys who can work in specialty roles and long relief roles. It would certainly be better if McCullers could just focus on giving his club five dominant innings rather than worrying about his inning numbers.
I'll take Chris Devenski, Michael Feliz, or maybe even Francis Martes down the road to relieve him in the fifth or sixth inning and pass the torch from there. With this in mind, McCullers can focus on getting 14 to 16 outs to start the game and not stress out about his pitch count on any given night.
McCullers has already shown he is a great starting pitcher, and with just a little improvement in other facets of his game, McCullers would become one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. Health is the key to 2017, and if he avoids injury there's no reason he shouldn't be able to have a Cy Young Calibre season for the Houston Astros.