The narrative of Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers has been well-documented. In his first couple seasons in the major leagues, he flashed electric stuff, but did not have the health or consistency to be considered a top pitcher. One of those consistency issues was his road pitching performances.
Up until May 5th, McCullers was sporting a 5.32 ERA on the road against 2.11 ERA at home. But across his last three road starts, he has accumulated 19 innings and given up no runs, allowing just nine hits and walking only four. He may able to attribute the success to one thing: his changeup.
McCullers has had a changeup his whole career, but it was used only 7.4% of the time in the 2015-16 seasons. McCullers, along with Rich Hill, has sort of redefined curveball use, as he thrown more curveballs than fastballs the last two years. McCullers essentially threw two pitches his first two seasons in the majors, and the changeup was needed simply because any starter needs to throw more than two pitches. The changeup showed promise, but McCullers just did not have the command of it to make it a prevalent pitch.
Most of you have probably seen this, but if you haven’t, well, just watch. Yes, a 94mph changeup (kind of). McCullers tantalized us with that in 2015, but the changeup sort of disappeared after that.
It is back now, and in a big way. McCullers has thrown the pitch 22.2% of the time over his last five starts, the last three of which were those dominant road performances. His first start with the changeup increase didn’t go so well, as he gave up five earned runs against the Cleveland Indians. But McCullers has stuck with it, and he is dominating now.
Hitters are batting just .192 against the changeup this year, a massive improvement from the way it was smacked around to a .458 batting average last year. To give you an idea of what the pitch is doing to batters — McCullers throws the changeup in the zone only 27.2% of the time, but is drawing a swing 41.2% of the time, which is more often than on his fastball. At 89.3 MPH on average, McCullers has thrown the hardest changeup in the league among qualified starters. His K%-BB% on the pitch in 2017 is 22.2%. Simply, the changeup is dominating players. McCullers overall K% has dropped from 27.3% in his career to 24.2% in his last five games, but this has not been a negative.
McCullers’ fastball has not been a strength in his career, as it’s average against in 2015-16 was .334. His success lived off the curveball in those years because of his lack of an effective fastball or changeup. Surprisingly, the more changeups thrown has not caused a decline in fastballs thrown, but rather in curveballs. McCullers has thrown the curve nearly half the time in his career, but has thrown it only 38.0% of the time in his last five starts. He is throwing roughly the same amount of fastballs, but with much improved results.
His fastball GB% is up to 61.2% this year, much improved from his 37.2% mark in 2015. The average against is way down from .334 in 2015-2016 to .200 this year. Most importantly, though, McCullers has halved his BB% on the fastball from his first two seasons. Hitters were destroying the fastball in the zone and not chasing on it out of the zone. McCullers is getting fewer strikeouts because he is throwing fewer curveballs, but the overall pitching results are better. He is drawing softer contacts and walking fewer guys at the cost of a couple strikeouts.
McCullers decided to change up his extreme curveballing ways with some more changeups, and it is working beautifully. The changeup is dominating hitters, creating strikeouts and soft contact without walking guys. But perhaps most importantly, an effective third pitch from McCullers is finally keeping people on their toes, and they can no longer sit on the fastball. But don’t forget about his curveball, which is still one of the best in baseball.
The consistency at home and away from Minute Maid Park is finally there, and McCullers is pitching lights out right now. Health is still a concern, but McCullers is yet to have an issue this season. If his health keeps up, Dave Cameron may be saying “I told you so!” come November.