For Game Four, the Astros will try to finish of the Royals by giving the ball to 22-year old rookie Lance McCullers. He is the son of former big league pitcher Lance McCullers, Sr., a swingman who pitched for four teams, primarily the Padres, in the late 1980s. The younger McCullers was a pitcher for Jesuit High School in Tampa when he was considered one of the top prospects available in the 2012 draft, with rumors of the Royals even being interested in him with the #5 overall pick. But the Royals passed on McCullers to take Kyle Zimmer, and McCullers slid down the draft board due to signability concerns before being selected by the Astros as the 41st pick in the 2012 draft.
The right-hander put up good numbers in the low minors, although he struggled with his command. He spent all of 2014 in the California League (High A) and was hit hard for a 5.85 ERA in the notorious hitter's league. After just seven games in AA in 2015, where he allowed four runs in 32 innings, the Astros aggressively promoted him all the way to the big leagues. He stuck.
McCullers wore Batman cleats in his Major League debut, then tossed an eleven-strikeout, four-hit, complete-game gem in just his fourth Major League start against the Orioles. In his ninth Major League start, he beat the Royals 6-1, going seven innings and allowing just four hits. In 22 starts this year, he finished with a 3.26 ERA, a 3.22 FIP, and 129 strikeouts in 125 2/3 innings. His command proved not to be too much of an issue, as he walked just three hitters per-nine-innings.
He exhibits a cross-fire delivery, where he throws across his body much like Jered Weaver or Madison Bumgarner. His fastball has good zip and averages 94 mph, hitting 97 at times. McCullers exhibits good velocity for a starting pitcher, but his fastball can be hittable. Opponents hit .279 and slugged .468 off his fastball, with seven of the ten home runs he allowed coming off the heater.
McCullers can credit much of his early success on his curveball, the hardest-thrown curveball in the big leagues this year, coming in at 84 mph. Its definitely not a big-bending, 12-6 curveball like his teammate Collin McHugh, but a tighter breaking pitch with velocity. He uses a spike-curve grip, giving it different velocities and directions. Opponents hit just .157 against it, 15th best among starting pitchers. Only Felix Hernandez got more overall value from his curveball than McCullers among all pitchers with 100 innings.
As a draft prospect, the knock on McCullers was he had just two plus pitches, possibly leaving him to a career in the bullpen. As a minor leaguer, however, he worked diligently on developing his changeup.
"‘Hey, we’re going to commit to this changeup thing. It’s going to cost me runs, it’s going to cost me walks. It’s going to cost me some balls flying out of the park, but it’s going to be better for me down the road'"
His changeup is not great by any means, but it has become passable. He only throws it 10% of the time, but gets a whiff rate of 33.3% with it. He has experimented with grips on it, and it can have some ridiculous movement at times.
.@LMcCullers43 has been ridiculous. Another 7 K's and no walks last night. He also threw this pitch (?!?!?!?): pic.twitter.com/rYIqKAIh57— Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) June 10, 2015
McCullers has been a much better pitcher at home with a 1.86 ERA at Minute Maid Park and a 4.60 ERA on the road. He was able to cut down his walk rate as the season progressed, but also became more hittable with eight of the ten home runs he allowed coming in his last eleven games. McCullers has a reverse split with lefties faring much worse against him, batting .209/.272/.318, compared to .243/.320/.490 for righties.
The Astros could have handed the ball to 30-year old veteran Mike Fiers, a pitcher without post-season experience, but certainly a decent pitcher this season. Instead, they give the ball to a 22-year old rookie who was getting lit up in the California League a year ago. McCullers could put his team in their first League Championship Series in a decade, or he could send the series back to Kansas City for a "winner-take-all" one game playoff. No pressure, kid.