With Lance McCullers scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut on Thursday afternoon, I felt it was a fitting time to talk about what to expect from him in 2017. After a stellar debut season, where he started 22 games, had a 3.22 ERA, a 9.24 K/9, and a 3.26 FIP, there were lofty expectations for McCullers going into 2016. Fans were hoping he and Dallas Keuchel would form one of the best 1-2 punches among starting pitchers in all of baseball. However, that did not end up happening, as McCullers missed time in the beginning and end of the season, while Keuchel wasn’t himself all year, until he was shut down for the last month of the year with shoulder soreness that he had been dealing with all season. When McCullers pitched though, he was solid. While only starting 14 games, McCullers managed to lower his FIP and increase his K/9.
Going into 2017, the hope is McCullers can stay healthy through a full season, and reach a new level he has not yet been to. With the Astros not bringing in any major pieces for the starting rotation, it is critical that both Keuchel and McCullers can live up to what fans hoped they would be in 2016.
What should fans expect from McCullers though?
The first goal should be to start 30 games in a season. Like I said earlier, he ended up with 22 games started in his rookie season, where he debuted on May 18th (of course everyone remembers the batman cleats). That year he had a stint of about 20 days in August in which he was hurt, so he lost about three starts in that time frame. Basically, Lance would have to be healthy throughout the entire season to reach goal. It might seem like a tough goal to reach. He has a fairly small frame for a starting pitcher, where he stands 6’1 and weighs about 205 lbs. From what he has showed, he is a breaking ball first pitcher, as 49.5% of his pitches were breaking balls, in comparison to his fastball, which he used 43% of the time. Hopefully he is sturdy enough to carry a heavy workload on his shoulders because from what we have seen from him so far, and the type of pitcher he is, it might be tough to count on him to do that.
Looking at his weapons, McCullers primarily throws his fastball and breaking ball, while occasionally working in a changeup. His issue isn’t throwing his curveball, but more his fastball. The first issue is it can be very erratic, and secondly, he has a tendency to leave it up and over the plate, rather than throwing it lower in the zone. This has led to him having a terrible walk rate. Fortunately, he strikes out a lot of batters, allowing him to have a solid FIP. This is probably his main issue right now when he pitches. He really can turn into one of the better pitchers in baseball, but he needs to harness his fastball.
Overall, McCullers can really build off of his last two years statistically. It will be hard to improve his strikeout rate, which was top-notch last year, but his next step is to cut down his walks. He also needs to stay healthy. As much as I personally want him to stay healthy, become an integral part of the rotation, and see him help a team on the cusp of trying to return to the playoffs, if he continues to have shoulder problems, it might need to be time to look at other options, such as putting him in the bullpen which would allow him to throw less innings. But with the expectations of him staying healthy, It is hard for me to see him get worse, as he is still young, and has yet to hit his prime yet. Look for him to improve his walk rate, while also maintaining his strikeout rate, and lower his ERA, WHIP, and FIP. If he does this, expect a smile on a lot of happy Astros fans.