Updated: May 23
Snow, rain, hail, no matter the weather, baseball is always in season, and fantasy baseball is right around the corner. Fantasy baseball takes time, it takes commitment, it takes knowledge and most importantly, a love for the game. Beyond all this, you have to understand players and where to draft them, all to get the most value out of everyone you choose to draft, or keep. From Jameson Taillon to Carlos Rodon to Michael Fulmer, baseball saw an a handful of talented arms losing their seasons to devastating injuries in 2018-2019. When healthy, they've all shown the potential to be very good MLB pitchers and unfortunately, Lance McCullers Jr was amongst them.
On November 6th, 2018, McCullers Jr. underwent the dreaded Tommy John surgery and was subsequently placed on the 60-day injured list on June 9th, 2019. Initially, McCullers Jr. was selected by the Houston Astros as the 41st overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. Prior to the draft, he was known for having a cannon of an arm, topping out at 97 mph at just 16 years old. The media attention was there, the talent was there, the pedigree of having a father who played professionally lurked, it was everything every young baseball player could dream of.
Fast forward to May 18th, 2015, and McCullers Jr. is making his Major League debut vs. OAK. He allowed one earned run in 4.2 innings pitched, with three walks and five strikeouts. It was a modest debut for the flamethrower, but 17 days later, he truly introduced himself to the baseball world. In his fourth ever major league start, he threw a majestic complete game vs. BAL, whiffing 11 batters and allowing only one earned run on four hits, no walks. Now at this point, batters everywhere are scrambling to pull out all the McCullers Jr. tape. He would finish his rookie season starting a total of 22 games, pitching to a marvelous 3.22 ERA and a 129/43 K:BB in 125.2 innings. It was about as good a rookie season as a pitcher can have and the hype train was full steam ahead.
In 2018, McCullers Jr. again started 22 games. In fact, only once has McCullers Jr. not started exactly 22 games in his career, that being in 2016 when he started only 14 games due to shoulder soreness. Between those shoulder issues in 2016, the recurring back injuries in 2017 and now the recovery from his torn UCL, McCullers Jr. has yet to deliver a full healthy season showcasing his capabilities. Now, many are starting to question if he will ever be able to live up to his potential after his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Great pitchers have had Tommy John surgery and went on to perform admirably in their comeback season, see Matt Harvey. All in all, entering his age-26 season, the time to perform for Lance McCullers Jr.'s now, with his biggest obstacle being durability.
When healthy, Lance McCullers Jr. is a technician on the mound. In his rookie season, he pitched to a 24.8 K%, which was good for top 20 among all MLB starting pitchers (min 90 innings pitched). Moreover, his 3.26 FIP and 3.50 xFIP both supported his stellar 3.22 ERA. A substantial reason why Lance McCullers Jr. is so good at limiting runs is his ability to induce ground balls at an elite level. To be more specific, in 2017, McCullers Jr.'s 61.3% groundball rate was good for top five among all MLB starting pitchers(min 90 innings pitched). Now you may be wondering if this guy is some type of pitching wizard, which is understandable, but he simply understands how to use his pitches.
In 2018, in reference to Brooks Baseball , McCullers primarily threw a curve(86mph), a sinker(95mph), and a changeup(88mph). He also possesses a cutter(94mph) and a fourseam fastball(95mph), but both are rarely used.
Seemingly, McCullers' curveball and changeup led him to the most amounts of whiffs and thus are his two primary strikeout pitches. However, the huge drop off in changeup usage and the sudden up stick in the use of his curveball towards the end of the season can logically be tied to the news of his right elbow discomfort, which led to his surgery. Beyond all this, his 2018 ground balls per balls in play chart below represents his ability to create a high percentage of ground balls using more than one pitch.
Throughout the 2018 season, McCullers Jr. relied mostly on his sinker to create ground balls, up until his injury. His curveball and changeup fluctuated in regards to their ability to create a ground ball, so there were points in which he stopped using them all together, until the end of the season where again, his elbow started to cause problems for him and he used just a curveball and a changeup.
Moreover, his curveball was the pitch that a batter whiffed at the most. Over the majortity of the season, there was not a pitch McCullers Jr. trusted more to get a batter chasing than his curveball. As a result, it is by a large margin and consistently throughout the 2018 season that his curveball fooled hitters, telling us that McCullers Jr. truly is a talented pitcher. Additionally, his changeup also induced a fair amount of batter whiffs, with his sinker being used primarily for other reasons such as creating ground balls.
It is worth noting that his fastball can top out at 100 mph but it simply gets obliterated whenever he throws it, as can be seen by the chart below.
When he threw his fastball in 2018, batters slugged .830 off of it. It is not surprise he has opted to stick with his sinker as his primary hard pitch.
As a whole, McCullers Jr. is a pitcher who loves to use his curveball and changeup when he is ahead in the count, to put guys away. He has the confidence in those pitches to do so, and the results show. Furthermore, when there are runners on, he'll more than likely throw his sinker to try and get a double play through a ground ball, or he'll use his changeup or curveball, depending on the count. This is a pitcher who understands his arsenal and he understands how to use his arsenal effectively. The only thing stopping Lance McCullers Jr. from being an annual all-star is his inability to stay on the field.
Should you target Lance McCullers Jr. in Fantasy Baseball 2020?
Lance McCullers Jr. has an ADP of 188.96 per NFBC, right around guys like Luke Weaver and Mike Foltynewicz. At that price, you absolutely have to buy, as Lance McCullers Jr. has the upside of a top 25 MLB pitcher. If you are in a keeper or dynasty league, do not give into any "buy-low" offers, hold McCullers. Jr. and ride the ground balls all season long.
With that all being said, nobody is perfect, and McCullers Jr. did struggle with his BB% in 2018. His mark of 9.5 BB% was good for top 30 in the MLB, not a list you want to be on. However, it was an improvement from his 12.8% mark in 2016.
In all, it is not logical to expect McCullers Jr. to perform up to his pedigree within his first few starts of 2020. It will take time for him to adjust mentally to playing in The Show again, even though he’s fully healthy and ready to go. Despite that fact, you are targeting him in every draft, everywhere. He is the type of player that could drop a few rounds because some may have forgotten just have effective and dangerous he can be when healthy. Lance McCullers. Jr., if healthy, will perform as a top 30 starter, or better. You want this type of value on your 2020 fantasy baseball roster.
In this Fantasy Baseball article, I wrote about McCullers Jr. because he is a prime bounce-back candidate. Do you agree?
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Happy New Years everyone!
Written By: Micah S. Henry
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