2022 World Series: Lance McCullers is different, but the Astros’ starter is still great

2022 World Series: Lance McCullers is different, but the Astros’ starter is still great

Even if it’s Monday Game 3 it will be the first time Lance McCullers Jr. has ever pitched at Citizens Bank Park, the postseason stage is one in which he feels quite comfortable performing.

Still only 29, McCullers’ career 68.1 innings postseason ranks 11th among active pitchers. At the same time, it’s hard not to think about how high he would rank on this list if not for multiple untimely injuries along the way. he thrown by an elbow injury in the 2018 postseason before ultimately succumbing to Tommy John surgery after Houston was cut. That kept him on the shelf for all of 2019, which meant he didn’t get to pitch during Houston’s run to the World Series, when they certainly could have used him in all seven games against the Nationals.

Two years later, a forearm injury in the 2021 ALDS against the White Sox knocked McCullers out for the rest of what turned out to be another deep October run for the Houston Astros. When McCullers takes the ball for Game 3, it will be the 12th start and 19th appearance of his career in the playoffs, but his first start in the Fall Classic since starting Game 7 of the 2017 World Series.

Now in his eighth year as an Astro, McCullers is the longest-tenured pitcher on the World Series roster and the second-longest-tenured player overall behind only Jose Altuve, who debuted in 2011. He debuted in the postseason 10 days after his 22nd. birthday in Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS against Kansas City, pitching six strong innings but getting a no decision as the Royals came back to win the game, the series and a few weeks later, the damn thing.

In the seven years since that memorable first playoff start, McCullers has evolved remarkably as a pitcher. Gone is the young firefighter who alternates almost exclusively between high-octane four-seams and his ridiculous knuckle curve. The McCullers we see today are the product of the constant crafting of a repertoire that is now unlike almost any other starting pitcher in baseball. Injuries along the way have surely played a role, but it’s been remarkable to see McCullers himself find postseason success in 2022 and realize how different it looks from that October debut against the Royals in 2015.

Of the 110 pitches McCullers threw against Kansas City, 51 (46.4%) of them were four-seam fastballs, 54 (49.1%) of them were knuckleball curves and five (4.5%) they were changes His fastball topped out at 97.8 mph. Fast forward to this October, and you’d hardly believe you were looking at the same pitcher. Of McCullers’ 100 pitches against the Yankees in the ALCS36 were sliders, 36 were pulls, only 14 were his signature gunnery curveball, 13 were changeups and one was a cutter.

He threw zero four-seam fastballs. In fact, McCullers hasn’t thrown a fastball that Statcast has recorded as four seams since 2020, when he threw just four.

Since returning from Tommy John surgery, McCullers has completely moved away from the four-seam machine in favor of the pen, or two-seam fastball, and overhauled his repertoire as a whole to better suit an arsenal that is not that high. fed based on speed as before.

McCullers’ slugger topped 96.2 mph in the ALCS, which was also the hardest pitch he threw in 2022 and the only time he hit 96 mph all season. That pales in comparison to rookie McCullers, who threw 299 pitches over 96 mph in 2015, including 9 in his playoff debut alone. In 2016, he max at 99 mph. Since then, he hasn’t thrown a single pitch over 98 mph.

Make no mistake, no matter what types of fastballs he’s been throwing or how hard he’s been throwing them, McCullers has always been best known for his secondary offerings, most notably the curveball he’s terrorized hitters with since ‘high school. His 24 straight curveballs to close the 2017 ALCS fueled one of the most unique pitching performances in postseason history:

But as McCullers’ velocity has dropped, even more so since returning from a forearm strain that kept him out for the first four months of the 2022 season, he has leaned more and more into his variety of things off speed. Among starting pitchers with at least 40 innings (McCullers made just eight regular-season starts when leaving the IL in August), McCullers pitched the fourth lowest fastball percentage (four seams + feathers) at 24.5%.

McCullers’ heavy reliance on his non-heaters this season stands out, especially relative to the other starters who throw a relatively low percentage of fastballs. Two of the three pitchers who threw a lower percentage of fastballs: a Brewers ace Corbin Burns and novice red ones right handed Graham Ashcraft — You rely heavily on 90s cutters that don’t qualify as traditional fastballs. The other is Rays lefty Ryan Yarbrough, whose fastest pitch in 2022. it was 90.4 mph. McCullers, meanwhile, resides in a unique speed band relative to those three. He may not have the freakish cutters of Burnes or Ashcraft, but it’s not like McCullers is a total piece of junk like Yarbrough either. His fastball averages about 93 mph on average, and it may not be what it used to be, but it’s not exactly batting practice. Also, when used sparingly, his average speed can look much more intimidating to opposing hitters when deployed in relation to his huge off-speed pitches. 93 mph can feel like 103 mph if you just saw a bunch of sliders and changeups in a row.

McCullers may continue to speed up the forearm injury. Maybe we’ll see a couple more 96s or even a 97 in Game 3. What matters most is that he’s figured out what version of himself he can consistently come up with in 2022, no matter how hard he’s pitching. Most importantly, he’s healthy and capable of contributing to Houston’s latest run at a championship.

A big reason the Astros are in their fourth World Series in six years has been their incredible ability to get the most out of their pitchers no matter where they were drafted, no matter how big their bonus was. signing, how is his repertoire or how hard. they pull Although they are often credited as one of the main trendsetters of throwing more four-seams in the area with the eruptions of guys like Gerrit Cole, Houston has also consistently shown that the priority is figuring out what works best for each pitcher and maximizing their skill set rather than any one-size-fits-all organizational philosophy. McCullers’ evolution over the years exemplifies this approach brilliantly.

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.

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