Astros Player of the Day: Lance McCullers Jr.

Oct 19, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (43) looks on during warmups before game one of the ALCS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs against the New York Yankees at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Astros Player of the Day: Lance McCullers Jr.

Welcome to Gallery Sports’ Houston Astros Spring Training player spotlight, Astros Player of the Day. We will look at a different Astros player each day throughout spring training.

Today’s Astros Player of the Day is pitcher Lance McCullers Jr.

Three years removed from Tommy John Surgery McCullers was the Astros ace when the 2021 postseason began. He finished seventh in Cy Young voting after compiling a 3.16 ERA while throwing a career-high 162.1 innings in a career-high 28 starts, and he looked like a number one starter while shutting out a high-powered White Sox lineup over 6.2 innings in game one of the ALDS.

McCullers garnered so much confidence that the club asked him to start game four of that series on three-days rest. He gave up one run over four innings, but one poorly gripped slider in his final inning resulted in a forearm strain that would end his postseason and delay the start of his 2022 season by four months. 

The right-hander returned to post a 2.27 ERA in eight regular starts and then shutout the Mariners over six frames in game three of the ALDS, but he struggled in game four of the ALCS after having his start pushed back a day because his elbow was cut by a champagne bottle during a clubhouse celebration, and then he was rocked for five home runs in game three of the World Series. 

Following a healthy offseason, it seemed McCullers would be good to go for the start of the 2023, but he felt pain in his elbow during a February 14 bullpen session that will land him on the IL for the start of the season due to a strained muscle in his forearm. An MRI revealed no structural damage in his elbow, but he will not start a Grapefruit League game and there remains no timetable for his return.  

Selected 41st overall in 2012, McCullers is a completely different pitcher than the one that made his Major League debut in 2015. Back then he was a four-seam fastball, curveball pitcher, who would mix in a changeup to lefties, but today he has scrapped the four-seam and he features a different repertoire for lefties and righties. 

Against right-handed hitters, McCullers throws a two-seam fastball and a slider that has held opposing hitters to a .159 with 10 extra base hits since it was developed following the 2020 season, along with an occasional changeup. Left-handed hitters see his two-seam everyone now and then, but they mostly deal with his curveball, changeup, and a cutter that is sometimes identified as his slider.

McCullers doesn’t generate strikeouts the way he did early in his career, but opponents have hit for a lower average against him the last three seasons than they did his first four because he induces weaker contact, but he’s walked more than 11 percent of the hitters he’s faced the last two seasons. That number needs to decline because the Astros will need him to go deeper into games in order to save a bullpen that had to throw an extra month’s worth of games last season. 

The second longest-tenured Astro, behind Jose Altuve, McCullers is entering the second year of a five-year, $85 million contract. He’s proven to be an excellent starting pitcher, when healthy, the problem is he hasn’t been healthy very often, and with Justin Verlander gone and the minor league system thin, the Astros need him to perform at a high level now, more than ever. 

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