Following Game Three last night, the Astros somewhat surprisingly announced Lance McCullers Jr. will start Game Four this evening. I say somewhat surprisingly because McCullers hasn’t pitched all that well of late, and they had both Brad Peacock and Dallas Keuchel (on short rest) as options. Instead, it’s McCullers, son of the former Yankee and also a former Yankees trade target, on the bump today.
The 24-year-old McCullers threw 118.2 innings with a 4.25 ERA (3.10 FIP) this season, with one of the highest ground ball rates in baseball (61.3%) to go along with strong strikeout (25.8%) and walk (7.8%) numbers. It was really a tale of two seasons for McCullers though. He had some back problems at midseason that required two disabled list stints, and his performance dropped off big time. To wit:
- First 15 starts (healthy): 2.69 ERA (2.72 FIP), 29.1 K%, 7.1 BB%, 63.9 GB%
- Last 7 starts (dealing with back trouble): 8.53 ERA (4.41 FIP), 18.4 K%, 9.5 BB%, 56.1 GB%
In his only ALDS appearance, McCullers came out of the bullpen and allowed two runs on three hits and two walks in three innings against the Red Sox. Because the Astros took it easy on him in the second half while his back was acting up, McCullers has not thrown more than 83 pitches in a game since July. Only once has he thrown more than 76 pitches since July. This could be a four-and-fly start for him. Let’s take a look at the right-hander.
History Against The Yankees
McCullers just completed his third MLB season, and because he’s in a different division, he doesn’t have a ton of head-to-head experience with the Yankees. He’s made three career starts against the Yankees, holding them to four runs in 17.1 innings. That includes three runs in 11.1 innings in two starts this season. Six scoreless innings on May 12th and three runs in 5.1 innings on June 30th.
Players on New York’s ALCS roster have hit .241/.290/.310 in 62 total plate appearances against McCullers in his relatively short MLB career. Didi Gregorius gets credit for most of that damage. Here are the numbers:
After a few weeks of these previews, I think you know how I feel about hitter vs. pitcher splits. I’m not sure eight or nine at-bats spread across several seasons is all that meaningful or productive. But! I absolutely believe a pitcher can “own” a hitter and vice versa. It’s a weird dynamic. The overall numbers against McCullers aren’t very promising, but they came against McCullers when his back was healthy, so … who knows?
In short, McCullers has some of the nastiest stuff in the game. His four-seamer has gradually morphed into a sinking two-seamer over the last two years and the pitch will sit in the mid-90s and touch 98. His curve is an absolute hammer. The pitch averaged — averaged! — 86.1 mph this past season and topped out at 90.1, which seems impossible. A good but not great upper-80s changeup rounds out his repertoire.
That hammer curveball? McCullers threw it 47.7% of the time this past season. He threw more curves (47.7%) than fastballs (40.2%) during the regular season, if you can believe that. I can’t think of another starter who threw that many more breaking balls than fastballs. Or more breaking balls than fastballs in general. Here, via Brooks Baseball, is the breakdown of how McCullers pitches against righties and lefties:
The Astros aren’t stupid. They know the Yankees have collectively flailed at breaking balls pretty much all postseason, so I get the sense McCullers is going to go out today and throw a ton of curveballs. I mean a ton. It could be as much as 70% curves in Game Four. He’ll need to throw some fastballs just to keep hitters honest, but when your curveball is this good and you’re playing an important postseason game, why not throw it a ton? I’m sure the curveball is a big reason why McCullers and not Peacock is starting today.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, here is every pitch McCullers threw against the Rangers on May 1st this year. He allowed two runs on six hits and two walks in 6.1 innings, and struck out ten.
Interestingly enough, McCullers has a pretty big reverse split both for his career and the 2017 season. Last year it was closer to even, but in 2015 and 2017, it was pretty lopsided in favor of righties, which I didn’t expect. His career platoon splits:
- vs. RHB: .251/.340/.402 (.325 wOBA), 23.2 K%, 10.6 BB%, 54.9 GB%
- vs. LHB: .232/.300/.337 (.280 wOBA), 30.3 K%, 7.7 BB%, 54.1 GB%
Huh. I can’t really explain that. You’d think a guy with a mid-90s fastball/mid-80s curveball like McCullers would crush same-side hitters, but apparently not. Perhaps the changeup is that much of a difference-maker against lefties? They have to respect the changeup, making the fastball and curveball that much more effective? Then again, McCullers does use his changeup against righties, so who knows.
Do these numbers mean Joe Girardi should stack the lineup with righties this afternoon? I guess so, but realistically, what changes are there to be made? Gregorius sure as hell isn’t sitting for Torreyes. I guess Holliday for Headley at DH? I’d rather just stick with Headley, who has hit a few balls on the screws the last two games and is a switch-hitter anyway.
Can The Yankees Run On Him?
Yes in that they should be able to run against pretty much any Astros pitcher except Keuchel given how poorly Brian McCann and Evan Gattis throw. Runners went 4-for-6 stealing bases against McCullers this season. Not the biggest sample. It is what it is. The Yankees, despite McCann and Gattis, have yet to attempt a steal in the ALCS. Part of that is lack of opportunities against Keuchel and Justin Verlander, and part of it is those glorious dingers last night. But yeah, they can run on McCullers, at least in theory.
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Collin McHugh did the Astros a solid and soaked up some garbage time innings last night, meaning Houston’s top relievers are rested and ready to go this afternoon. It’s not crazy to think A.J. Hinch could try to squeeze five innings from Chris Devenski and Ken Giles if they have a lead, knowing Keuchel is a good bet to pitch deep into the game tomorrow. McCullers figures to throw the hell out of his curveball today, but with his limited pitch count, the Yankees have a chance to get into Houston’s bullpen pretty early if he can stay patient and work the count.