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Year-in-Review: Lance McCullers Jr.

It had been a while since we saw Lance McCullers Jr. on the mound. He has dealt with his fair share of injuries throughout his career, and he dealt with his most severe in 2019 when he lost the entire season to Tommy John surgery. The shutdown and the subsequent delayed start to the season meant that he did not have to miss any extended time to start the season as would usually be the case for a pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery. However, we still have yet to see a complete season from McCullers, with his single-season career-high for innings pitched is just 128.1 in 2018, and yet he is just one season away from free agency. How time flies.

Since debuting back in 2015, McCullers has shown excellence on the mound, which has kept him relevant in the fantasy baseball landscape, even throughout all of the injuries. That was still the case in his first action back on the mound in 2020. He had a solid 3.93 ERA (92 ERA-), with encouraging peripherals such as a 3.70 FIP (84 FIP-), a 3.68 xFIP (82 xFIP-), and a 3.95 SIERA. That's not bad at all considering not only the circumstances surrounding the injury he was returning from, but also the unusual circumstances surrounding the 2020 season in general.

The short season did not decrease his injury chances though, as he did land on the injured list in September. Fortunately though, it was not due to an arm injury, and he was back in action after the minimum 10 days. Not only that, McCullers was dominant down the stretch for the Houston Astros, recording a 1.53 ERA in 17.2 innings pitched in September, that coming off a rough August in which he recorded a 4.94 ERA.

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The Good Stuff

Perhaps most importantly was that McCullers' stuff didn't miss a beat, and was basically right where we would want it to be. His trademark high-spin curveball maintained its' elite spin and generated its' highest whiff rate since 2016 at 42.1%, tied for the seventh-highest rate in baseball. He did, however, use the pitch less frequently than in prior seasons. While it was still his main non-fastball option, its' usage dropped nearly ten percentage points from 2018, and over ten percentage points from its' 2016 and 2017 peak, when he threw the pitch nearly half of the time.

Instead, McCullers trusted his sinker a lot more often than ever. The pitch has historically generated a huge helping of groundballs for McCullers, and that was the case in 2020 at a 66.7% clip. Additionally, McCullers' changeup appeared to take some steps forward. From 2015 to 2017, his changeup was never much more than a token third pitch. He never used it more than 11.5% of the time in those three seasons. However, in 2018 he began to incorporate more into his repertoire, and even more so in 2020.

In 2020, while throwing the pitch at a career-high 18.4% rate, it generated a 72.7% groundball rate. Now, this is where the small-sample-size caveat should come into play. That rate is miles ahead of the 54.3% groundball rate on the pitch, so there likely is some noise here. What is really intriguing about the pitch though is that it has excellent movement, with both more vertical drop and horizontal break than the average changeup. This not only helps generate groundballs but also whiffs, which it did at a 35.7% rate in 2020, a rate that was inside the top-30.

There is also another pitch in his repertoire, the cutter. This pitch is a bit of a wild card, as he only debuted it this season after not throwing one in the past per Statcast. Not only that, but he debuted the pitch relatively late in the season:

The pitch was used exclusively against left-handed hitters, and the early returns were quite impressive with a whopping 50% whiff rate. Now, this is just a sample of 16 cutters thrown in the regular season, so we do need to pump the breaks a bit here. However, McCullers did turn to the pitch more often in the postseason for the Astros. He threw 25 of them in 14.2 postseason innings, again all to left-handers. The gameplan for the pitch was to throw it up and away to lefties:

Doing that seemed to allow McCullers to keep lefties on edge, and allowed him to change eye levels and go with his lower-in-the-zone curveball, and get more whiffs and in the process, making his curveball all the better.

So, it looks like McCullers has three strong pitches in his sinker, curveball, and changeup, and potentially another one in his cutter once we see a bit more of it. He's also a groundball pitcher and going into his walk year, which is often a time when players can put up career seasons. What's not to like?

Well, one item to keep in mind is McCullers high barrel rate. At 10.3%, it was the highest of his career, and in the 14th-percentile of pitchers in 2020. For context, he allowed 15 barrels in 2020, which is the same amount as he did in 2017, except he allowed that many in 2020 while throwing 43% of the total pitches that he did in 2017. It seems that, despite the high groundball rate and plus pitches, when McCullers made a mistake, or hitters were able to get the ball in the air, it got hit hard. Indeed, batters averaged a .827 wOBA when managing a flyball or line-drive off of McCullers, the highest among any pitcher with a minimum of 750 pitches thrown. This appeared to have reared its' ugly head in the postseason, as McCullers allowed seven runs in 14.2 innings (around 4.3 HR/9) against tougher competition in the postseason. That's definitely not ideal, and this looks to be McCullers' biggest weakness, which should be kept in mind when evaluating him for 2021.


2021 Outlook

With his profile, featuring good stuff but shakier hard-hit numbers, combined with his heightened injury risk, McCullers currently has an ADP of around pick 132 in early NFBC drafts. That is around the same tier of pitcher as Sandy Alcantara, Frankie Montas, Marco Gonzales, Triston McKenzie, David Price, and Kevin Gausman. The pitchers being drafted around the same range as McCullers are all talented pitchers and each comes with their share of upsides and downsides.

McCullers does have the chance to be the best of the group, considering his excellent repertoire and overall batted-ball distribution. This is probably a good tier and range for him to be drafted in, but the injury risks and the quality of contact issues are red flags that need to be kept in mind. There are likely to be more durable and perhaps safer pitchers to draft instead, but McCullers would likely provide more upside. It may all just depend on what a particular fantasy manager values more, but McCullers should be a solid option for SP 2 or SP 3 on your fantasy roster.

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