Lance McCullers Poised For Breakout Season in 2017

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Lance McCullers Poised For Breakout Season in 2017

Lance McCullers has pitched in parts of two seasons with the Astros in the last two years, but some numbers are pointing at him having a big 2017 season.

First and foremost, let’s talk about the injury concern. The most important thing for him in 2017 will be staying healthy. Last year he started the season on the DL with a shoulder problem but was able to come back in May and rack up 106 K in 81 innings before suffering an injury to his elbow. This injury caused McCullers to miss the rest of the 2016 season but, fortunately, he didn’t have to have surgery. All reports indicate he is healthy and ready for the season. Just yesterday he posted on Twitter and Instragram that his first bullpen session was “in the books” (good sign).

McCullers has already proved his worth. He has made 36 starts over the last two seasons posting a 3.22 ERA (3.16 FIP) with 235 K in 206.2 IP, good for 4.0 WAR. Many around the industry already see McCullers as a budding star, if he can stay healthy. In 2016, McCullers posted a 3.22 ERA with a 3.00 FIP and 3.06 xFIP. Both the FIP and xFIP were better than he posted in his rookie season. He improved in a number of categories in 2016, though his walk rate went up to 5.0 BB/9 with 45 BB in 81 IP.

But looking at some of the advanced numbers, there are plenty of reasons to expect more out of him in 2017. First let’s start with his ground ball percentage. In his rookie season (2015) he had a 46.5% ground ball percentage. That number jumped up to 57.3% in 2016. That was better than Astros’ ground ball ace, Dallas Keuchel, in 2016. The 57.3% ground ball rate also was good for third best in the MLB among starters with at least 60 IP. McCullers was also the only pitcher besides Noah Syndergaard to have a K/9 above 10 (McCullers at 11.7 K/9, Thor at 10.7 K/9) with a ground ball percentage of over 50.0%.

So with McCullers’ ground ball percentage jumping way up, his flyball percentage dropped from 31.8% in 2015 to just 21.1% in 2016. His HR/FB ratio actually went up to 11.9%, though that isn’t terribly high. The league average is around 10% so he is just a bit on the high side. His soft, medium, and hard hit rates were close to his rookie season with his medium going up a bit and hard hit going down a bit. Just for comparison, he allowed a lower percentage of hard hit balls than the Mets’ ace, Noah Syndergaard.

McCullers’ xFIP in his rookie season was 3.50 but he brought it down to 3.06 in 2016. Here is Fangraphs definition of xFIP.

xFIP Flash Card 12-29-15

We can see how xFIP can be a good number to look at. It takes the plays that don’t involve defense (strikeouts, walks, HBP, and fly balls allowed) and uses those numbers with a league average HR/FB ratio. So if McCullers was at a league average HR/FB ratio in 2016, his ERA would be estimated at 3.06.

Another incredible stat to look at is McCullers’ BABIP (batting average on balls in play). So this looks at the batting average of balls put in play against Lance McCullers. According to Baseball Prospectus, the league average BABIP for a modern day pitcher is around .300. In 2016, Lance McCullers allowed an astonishing .383 BABIP.  This was easily the highest mark in the MLB with Blake Snell being a distant second (.356). The difference between McCullers and Snell (.027) was the same difference between Snell and the 25th highest BABIP in 2016. Just for comparison, D.J. LeMahieu (who won the MLB batting title with a .348 BA) had a .388 BABIP in his 2016 season.

In his rookie season, his BABIP was only .288. With his hard hit rate and line drive rate being fairly low, one could chalk this up to a season of bad luck. If McCullers gets this number down to around league average, or even a little above, his overall numbers should improve dramatically. Keep in mind, BABIP and HR/FB, are thought to be out of a pitcher’s control and can vary year to year.

In 2015, McCullers threw his fastball 53.8% of the time, curveball 36.3% and changeup 9.9%. This changed in 2016 with him throwing the fastball less (43.0%), curveball more (49.5%), and changeup less (7.5%). Lance’s overall velocity was a bit down on his fastball from 2015 to 2016 but his curveball velocity increased from 84.1 MPH to 85.2 MPH. According to Brooks Baseball, McCullers allowed a .434 batting average against (BAA) his fastball in 2016. That number was way up from 2015 where he allowed a .278 BAA his fastball. He also had a lower swing and miss percentage on his fastball in 2016. His curveball was nearly unhittable though, with him allowing just a .137 BAA in 2016.

As noted earlier, McCullers’ walk rate was up and it was possible he was falling behind guys and getting into predictable fastball counts, which lead to this high BA against his fastball in 2016. If his control, command and pitch sequencing improves, it is feasible to expect the BA against his fastball to go down significantly.

Lastly, let’s take a look at his swing percentages. In 2016, Lance produced a higher amount of swings outside the strike zone (27.2% in 2015 to 31.5% in 2016). Even better, when hitters swung at pitches outside the strike zone, their contact percentage went from 56.1% in 2015 to 45.0% in 2016. The contact percentage in the zone was nearly identical but overall contact percentage dropped from 77.4% in 2015 to 70.2% in 2016. So while McCullers had more guys chasing pitches and guys making contact less, his BABIP still managed to be insanely high. But looking at the percentages, we can tell they are definitely trending in the right direction.

Now all these statistics are just numbers, and what truly matters in the outcome on the field. With that said, looking at these numbers can paint an optimistic picture for Lance McCullers in 2017. As stated in one of the first paragraphs, the most important thing for Lance this year will be to stay healthy, and if he does, he could make a move from a good pitcher to a potential Cy Young candidate.

Here is a link to Lance McCullers’ fangraph page.

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**Photo Credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images**

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