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Lance McCullers remains underrated

Lance McCullers is having an excellent year, but at this point, we shouldn’t be surprised.

MLB: Houston Astros at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Most fans outside of Houston know who Lance McCullers is, despite the fact that they likely would not define him as an “ace.” He’s a well-known starter despite having pitched fewer than 300 innings his entire career. People likely know the name, but underestimate his current and future value. Still just 23, McCullers’ came into the league as a rookie in 2015. He started 22 games and was an integral part of the Astros success in a season in which Houston made it to the ALDS but lost in five games to the team-of-destiny Royals.

Despite some injuries and DL stints, McCullers has been a solid presence for the Astros since that rookie campaign. He’s been overshadowed by Dallas Keuchel, who put up his own career year in 2015, making McCullers often overlooked. While Keuchel has demonstrated he can shut teams down and work long into games, McCullers generally pitches six-or-so innings, and keeps the Astros in games. This type of consistency bring significant value, even though it’s unlikely the bullpen will have a full day off when McCullers takes the hill.

Amidst a 22-inning scoreless streak in the month of May, people are finally starting to pay attention. McCullers earned Pitcher of the Month honors last month and he’s getting his due credit despite being basically the same pitcher he’s been since he joined the Astros.

Over the course of six starts last month, McCullers threw 36 13 innings (averaging just over six innings per start) and allowed only four earned runs. He threw 22 scoreless innings before yielding three runs in the first two innings in his May 28th start against Baltimore. While he does not go deep into games, he regularly keeps the Astros in nearly every game he pitches, rarely blowing up or giving up more than two or three runs.

In 70 total innings this season, he is striking out 28.2 percent of batters, which is very much in line with his career number of 27.3. He’s walking far fewer batters compared to last season, down to 7.3 percent of hitters compared to nearly 13 percent in 2016. One of the major changes is his .383 BABIP in 2016 falling nearly .100 points to a much more reasonable and expected .287.

Last season McCullers posted a decent fWAR of 2.1 over the course of 81 innings, meaning over the course of a full season’s worth of innings, we can project he would have posted somewhere around five wins. He is on a similar trajectory this season, having already posted 1.8 wins in only two months.

McCullers relies mostly on his curveball, which he throws a little less than half the time. Last year, hitters offered up swings at the second-highest rate of any pitcher in the game. While he supplemented the 48 percent usage of the curveball with a four-seamer (41 percent) and the rare changeup (7.5 percent), this season he is balancing out his curve with a two-seamer, rather than a four-seamer. The consistent effectiveness of the curveball is remarkable. He ranked seventh in the Majors in whiffs per swing last year, and he ranks seventh again thus far this year. Hitters are making significantly less contact on his changeup this year compared to last year (37 percent to 21 percent).

At only 23 years of age, McCullers still has plenty of improvement ahead of him. But already, he is consistent enough, and good enough, to experiment with quirky pitch selections for a team that is running away with the division. As he refines his ancillary stuff, while remaining effective with his curveball, McCullers will remain an important piece of the Astros rotation. He’ll likely be getting the call in the ALDS this October, when fans from all over the country can appreciate what he’s done for the last couple years.

Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.