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Lance McCullers: man of extrema

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It has been an interesting year for Lance McCulllers, who is one of the best or worst pitchers in baseball by several measures. How the rest of his season goes will depend on which of those changes first.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

To this point, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that that baseball world is familiar with Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers. Some likely took note of the cleats he wore on his Major League debut, while others might’ve become familiar with him for the stuff he has done to opposing batters since then. Either way, the top prospect broke into the bigs for the first time last season to give the Astros 125.2 innings of solid production. Then, like all years must, 2015 gave way to 2016.

2016 has offered a bit more of a quirky look for McCullers, to say the least. In fact, through 62.1 innings this season McCullers has posted quite the odd season, and it all starts with his FIP. Fielding Independent Pitching is a metric that operates off of the theory that pitchers directly control four things—walks, HBP, homeruns, and strikeouts—and ignores the things the pitcher doesn't control, or controls only partially. In addition to those four components, a constant is also thrown in as to scale FIP to something similar to ERA. One of the reasons we use FIP is that it is more stable year-to-year than ERA, and therefore can portray a pitchers’ true performance level much better. That doesn’t mean that it is the best or that it is perfect by any means, and someone who is looking for the true talent level of a certain pitcher might do better looking at their Deserved Run Average offered by Baseball Prospectus. However, in this case, the components that make up FIP and FIP itself (combined with some other metrics) do well to describe what is behind McCullers's current campaign.

This season McCullers has posted a 2.83 FIP. Not only is that remarkably low, but it ranks out as one of the best in the American League. Combine that with a 3.61 ERA and, from this perspective, McCullers has underperformed. But, of course, I wouldn’t have called his season quirky if there wasn’t more to it. Looking at the components of McCullers's FIP, one thing sticks out to me—his walk rate.

Out of all starters who have thrown at least 50 innings this season, McCullers’s 13.7 percent walk rate is the highest in all of baseball—beating out Francisco Liriano by eight-tenths of a percentage point. Without looking at his overall metrics, one would likely assume this meant he was struggling this season. Normally this assumption might not be that outlandish—walking a lot of hitters isn’t the best tactic for success—but that is what makes McCullers's season so strange. Over the past 10 years, no pitcher has been able to support a walk rate over 12 percent and an FIP under 3.50. Well, actually one guy did. You might’ve heard of him. A guy by the name of Clayton Kershaw did so in 2009, which speaks to how much of an outlier McCullers’s 2016 season really is:

BB% vs. FIP

How is he able to counteract that, you ask? By striking out a lot of batters and not allowing many homeruns.

Using the same caveat as before, McCullers is currently tied with Rich Hill for the highest strikeout rate in the American League—probably just like you drew it up in the preseason. McCullers has struck out a whopping 28.9 percent of the batters he has faced. If you’re keeping tabs at home, that means about 43 percent of the time opposing batters are either walking to first or walking to the dugout. I would think more research is required into what it means to have such a high rate devoted to strikeouts or walks. My best educated guess would be that it takes out possibilities away from the defense, but I doubt you’ll see a pitcher walking guys just so their defense doesn’t fail to make a play. As for not allowing homeruns, out of the 277 batters McCullers has faced this season he has allowed just two homeruns which, is good enough for one of the lowest rates in baseball, when using HR/9 or HR/FB%.

So if McCullers is able to keep his FIP low despite such a high walk rate, why is his ERA nearly a run higher? The short answer is that McCullers has somehow angered the BABIP gods. The logical answer is that McCullers, who could be called an extreme ground ball pitcher this season, has simply been bit by the high BABIP bug that plagues extreme groundball pitchers. Certainly he won’t always have a .395 BABIP to worry about, but regression happens over time. We can’t peg when it’ll happen, or how much, but I would bet a whole lot on McCullers not sporting a BABIP near .400 too much longer.

BABIP vs. ERA

That being said, it seems ill-advised to blame it all on poor luck. Using the strikezone density map offered by Brooks Baseball we can see that, of all batted balls, most of the contact comes from pitches located over the heart of the plate:

McCullers zone heatmap

Coupled with his high walk rate, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched of an assumption to say McCullers's control and command aren’t quite fully matured yet. You always hear the old cliché of how younger pitchers often have issues in this area, and maybe that is just the case with the 22-year old. That being said, there have always been questions about his command from people much smarter than I.

Going forward, I’m curious to see where he goes from here. How long can a pitcher stay at the extrema for walks, strikeouts, homeruns, and BABIP, and which will be the first to give. Although it feels as if something has to change sooner or later, he still has room to improve, and he has yet to even come close to the 1000 BIP stabilization threshold for BABIP, for example. I’m sure the Astros would love to see production closer to his FIP, especially as they attempt to chase down the Texas Rangers down the stretch. Regardless, Lance McCullers is having quite an interesting season.

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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a pitcher soon-to-undergo Tommy John for Howard Payne University. There he is a Junior majoring in Business Management with a minor in Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com