It was a return we awaited for almost a year, but it didn’t disappoint. Lance McCullers, Jr. was exceptional given the circumstances on Saturday. When LMJ takes the mound, he brings an energy to the stadium, and it showed that day. I want to take a deeper look at the numbers and compare where he sits currently compared to 2021 and what we may expect from him moving forward towards to the postseason. Before we continue, I’d like to extend credit to Fangraphs and Baseball Savant for the data I use in this article.
LMJ is a unique talent. He has an abundance or options to generate strikeouts. Below is a chart showing his pitch utilization and average velocity for each in 2021 and how his start Saturday was distributed:
At first glance, the numbers look very comparable. It’s encouraging to see his curveball being used as much as it was Saturday. The major point right now is his entire arsenal is at his disposal.
When I watched him in San Antonio a few weeks ago, he was throwing everything. The slider seemed least effective, but logically that makes sense as it’s one of his newer developed tools. I speculate his entire rehab process was centered around pitch performance after certain conditions. How maybe sliders or curveballs can I throw consecutively? How do I feel after certain pitch sequence? The value in testing these parameters is immeasurable for his return.
I also think it’s important to see how LMJ approaches left-handed hitters (LHH) compared to right-handed hitters (RHH). LMJ uses his arsenal differently based on which side of the plate the hitters come from. Against RHH, he leans on his slider, sinker, and changeup. On the other side, he relies on his cutter, changeup, and curveball against LHH. The most notable part of this data is how much more expanded his usage is against left-handed hitters compared to right-handed hitters. See below for more:
In 2021, LMJ expanded on his slider, which I felt was a response to Tommy John surgery and giving him another option away from his curveball to alleviate the stress on his elbow. We saw how effective it was for him and gives him an expanded option for RHH vs. LHH and how to balance quality pitches and health. I believe the distributions are due to how he creates deception with delivery and how it reflects from pitch to pitch. He can create the same look with sliders, sinkers, and changeups, allowing him to utilize it strongly against RHH. This also generates a sweeping pitch from right to left, and changeup breaking down and into RHH complimented by a sinker that combines movement and velocity.
On the flip side, LMJ has much more of his arsenal to use against LHH, especially his curveball. Looking at 2021, he threw 95% of his cutters and 98% of his curveballs to LHH. He can work curveballs in and out on LHH, sinkers, cutters and changeups away. The downward tilt of the curveball makes it much more effective compared to the slider was the slider breaks into them and sweeps more horizontally. a LHH can work to get his hands in more on the pitches and potentially get hits. I still believe his slider is a sneaky backdoor pitch to LHH when needed.
So, what should we do with this data? Well, I’m going to see if his approach changes against the hitters over the rest of this season. It’s important to understand how this injury may change his ability to throw pitches in certain situations. I’m optimistic from Saturday, as we saw similar pitch distributions to 2021 based on the hitters. I would also keep track of his velocity, to see which direction it goes throughout his return. We have seen how a decline in velocity is often a sign of regression. I would not be overly concerned over 1-2 mph variance to the downside, as it may work to benefit his off-speed pitches. It's been almost a year since he last pitched in a major league game, so I expect this is the major contributing factor to the velocity being down at the moment.
What may we expect from LMJ as we head to the postseason? First, I believe the Astros have the unique opportunity to keep 6 starters extended for the postseason and be specific on matchups for their rotation heading into each series. LMJ gives you versatility against both sides of the plate and can be effective against LHH if the situations call on him. There is also the option of platoon work between LMJ and one of the three starters in the postseason. We have seen Luis Garcia, Christian Javier and even Jose Urquidy struggle going through the lineup multiple times, and having the option to pair them together in games to mitigate this and also their pitch counts could prove a vital aspect to being prepared for any situation during the postseason. Below is a table expanding on the struggles faced as the work through the lineup multiple times:
It's exciting to see LMJ back on the mound. I can only imagine what this pitching staff becomes with a healthy, unlimited LMJ come October. I believe his return will determine if the front office calls on Hunter Brown for a role in September and the postseason. The silver lining to the pitching staff right now is how deep it is and what that means for LMJ in this process. There is plenty of time to work through this process and determine what is best for LMJ and the team as they look to win the World Series.