With the 2017 season now officially in the rearview mirror, and with the Houston Astros first-time champions, we turn our attention to the 2018 fantasy baseball season. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for next year. This week, we look at Lance McCullers, Jr., whose stock may unjustifiably be down after he recorded some poor surface numbers in 2017.
Lance McCullers, Jr., Houston Astros
2017 statistics: 22 GS, 118.2 IP, 4.25 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 3.10 FIP, 10.0 K/9, 3.0 BB/9
From a fantasy perspective, the 2017 season may not have looked like a strong one for Lance McCullers. He picked up only seven wins, he had an ERA substantially above 4.00, and, for the second consecutive season, he endured two DL stints. His postseason performances (especially his pennant-clinching performance out of the bullpen in Game 7 of the ALCS) may have left people with a positive final impression, but some fantasy owners may be discouraged about McCullers’ long-term outlook thanks to his poor surface numbers and his injuries. While concerns about his injury history are somewhat justified, any qualms about his 2017 performance would be much less so.
McCullers entered the 2017 season with a strong early-career track record of performance, having run a 3.22 ERA in 206.2 innings pitched in his first two major-league seasons, exhibiting a devastating combination of strikeout stuff and an ability to keep the ball on the ground. His walk rate was elevated (north of 10%), but he clearly profiled as one of MLB’s most exciting young starting pitches, given the rarity of his skillset. Among starting pitchers in that time, only Jake Arrieta and Tyson Ross exhibited a strikeout and ground ball combination anything like the one McCullers had demonstrated. McCullers’ results never matched those of Arrieta over that two-year stretch (very few pitchers’ did), but McCullers’ 2015-2016 looked awfully similar to Ross’ 2015 season. While that comparison looks scary in hindsight, Ross entered the 2016 season in very high regard, and his career was derailed by an injury more significant than anything that McCullers has ever suffered. Because starting pitchers who combine strikeouts and grounders to this extent are so few and far between, McCullers entered the 2017 season as a darkhorse Cy Young candidate.
While injuries and poor surface-level numbers eliminated McCullers from legitimate Cy Young talk early on in 2017, it should be noted that both of his calling cards remained largely extant. While his strikeout rate did fall nearly five percentage points from 2016, it remained comfortably above-average at 25.8%, while his stellar ground-ball rate actually increased further, pushing north of 60% for the first time in his career. Only Dallas Keuchel, Marcus Stroman, and Luis Perdomo had higher ground-ball rates in 2017 (minimum 100 innings pitched), and none of those players had strikeout rates comparable to McCullers’. Yet again, he proved to be something extremely rare, a legitimate strikeout artist and a ground-ball specialist wrapped into one. Further, while walks had been a problem for him in his first two MLB seasons, he managed to trim his walk rate by five percentage points, largely because hitters were more willing than ever to chase his devastating curveball. When looking only at the three true outcomes (striking hitters out, limiting walks, and limiting home runs), he was as dominant as ever, with a 3.10 FIP right in line with his career averages.
FIP is generally a better metric for predicting future performance of a pitcher than ERA is, because it strips out ball-in-play results that are often a reflection of poor luck or a bad defense supporting the pitcher. In some cases, though, it can simply miss on the pitcher’s true talent, as some pitchers simply give up authoritative contact that leads to poor batted ball results, for which FIP does not penalize them. Given the huge disparity between McCullers’ 3.10 FIP and his 4.25 ERA, one may be inclined to believe that this is an instance where the estimator missed something, that the pitcher was actually worse than the metric would indicate. That does not appear to be the case, though. McCullers has no history of significantly underperforming his FIP, and, according to Statcast, his average exit velocity and average launch angle allowed were both below the marks that he allowed in 2016, when he sported a 3.22 ERA. Even factoring in his slight decline in strikeout rate, Statcast estimates that McCullers was as good (slightly better, in fact) on a batter-for-batter basis in 2017 than he was in either of his two years prior. Nor could this be explained by external factors, as McCullers continued to pitch in front of the same defense in the same home park.
So, what explains the uptick in runs allowed? Sequencing, it seems. 32.4% of baserunners that reached against McCullers last season came around to score, with hitters batting .268 against him with men on base, compared to .231 with the bases empty. While there still tends to be an inclination among many fans and analysts to believe that a disparity between a player’s performance with men on base versus with the bases empty reflects an actual skill, a mark of a player’s ability to perform in the clutch, this is generally a sample size fluke, and the player should not be expected to continue to be particularly clutch. This is illustrated particularly well in McCullers’ case; he was substantially better with men on base than he was with the bases empty as recently as 2016, only for the trend to completely flip last season. Nor does he appear to be a player consumed by the big moment, as his dominant ALCS Game 7 performance demonstrated. In short, it appears that McCullers’ pedestrian results in 2017 were a reflection of little more than poor luck, as the rest of his metrics were largely on par with his career averages. For owners who believed in McCullers entering 2017, there is no reason to be discouraged by his most recent on-field production, as he should end up with ERAs much nearer his 3.10 FIP than his 4.25 ERA moving forward.
McCullers does, however, come with some legitimate injury concerns. He has been on the DL four times already in his brief career, and past injuries do tend to predict a player’s future injury history. On the bright side, he was, most recently, healthy, and neither of his DL stints in 2017 was related to his arm. On the other hand, he twice suffered arm injuries in 2016, and it is unclear how much McCullers’ curveball-heavy approach places him at risk moving forward. He has never eclipsed more than 125.2 innings in any of his three MLB seasons, so the Astros are likely to carefully monitor his regular-season workload, particularly because they may have their eyes already set upon a repeat postseason run.
He is, clearly, no one’s idea of a workhorse. That said, the true innings-eating ace is not easy to find in today’s game. Only 15 pitchers last season eclipsed 200 innings, and only two (Chris Sale and Ervin Santana) exceeded 210. With this trend of limiting starting pitchers to fewer starts and to shorter outings likely to continue, production on a rate basis should increase in value for fantasy owners. Looking solely at rate-basis production, McCullers is one of the league’s best pitchers, and he would likely be well worth a high draft choice, even if he can only reasonably be projected to throw something like 120-140 innings next season.
Entering his age-24 season, McCullers would likely be getting quite a bit of fantasy buzz had his 2017 results matched his actual performance. On an Astros team coming off one of the best offensive seasons we have seen in decades, there is no reason to believe that he will be lacking for run support, and he offers an almost unmatched combination of strikeouts and ground balls. If his stock is down slightly based upon his average 2017 results (or based upon his injury history), fantasy owners would be in a position to capitalize, grabbing him in reasonable anticipation that his results will more closely reflect those that he managed in 2015-2016.
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