This is the Exit Music (For A Player) series, reviewing the major components of the 2015 season. Check out other Exit Music (For A Player) posts here.
Acquired: Selected with the 41st overall pick in the 1st Compensation Round of the 2012 draft
Age: 22 - will be 23 next October
Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration; Arbitration-eligible after the 2019 season; Won't be a free agent until after 2021 season.
Career: For the compensation of "losing" Clint Barmes in free agency after the 2011 season, the Astros received an extra pick at the end of the 1st Round of the 2012 draft. And everyone knows how magic that 2012 draft was: Correa took less money, giving the Astros the financial flexibility to draft Lance McCullers out of Jesuit High School in Tampa, where he was the Gatorade National Player of the Year (other Gatorade Players of the Year include Zack Greinke, Justin Upton, and Alex Rodriguez). In McCullers' senior season at Jesuit, he threw 77IP with a 0.18 ERA, 140K:30BB.
McCullers made four starts for the GCL Astros in 2012, throwing 11IP, allowing 10H/2ER, 12K:2BB, and got sent to Greeneville to finish out the 2012 season, where he allowed 10H/8ER, 17K:10BB in 15IP - not the first time that walks would raise an eyebrow for McCullers.
All of 2013 was spent at Quad Cities, where in his Age 19 season McCullers was almost three years younger than his competition (of the 1645 batters that McCullers has faced in his pro career, only 146 have been younger than he). He struck out 117 batters in 104.2IP, but also walked 49. Still, he was able to limit his damage, posting a 3.18 ERA for the River Bandits.
He spent all of 2014 at Lancaster, where his numbers took the usual hit - a 5.47 ERA/1.56 WHIP. Yes, he struck out 115 batters in 97IP, but he also walked 56 batters. 2014 would bring his total to 117 batters walked in 221.2IP. But you couldn't ignore his stuff. Many predicted that McCullers was perhaps better suited for the bullpen, but the Astros wanted to see it through his experiment as a starter.
Which brings us to 2015. The first seven outings of McCullers' season (they weren't all starts, because of piggybacking and whatnot) came at Corpus, and he straight dominated: 32IP, 16H/4R (2ER), 48K:14BB. Both of the runs he gave up came against Frisco on May 2 in an outing where he threw 6IP, 2H/2ER, 7K:2BB after having faced them the week before, striking out nine and walking none in 4IP. The walks were lower by 1.3 per nine innings from 2014. Still high, but getting better. He had an 0.56 ERA. Things were going Well.
Then the Astros called him up straight from Corpus to face the A's on May 18 after Phillies great Brett Oberholtzer went back on the DL with blister issues. He wore Batman cleats. As a 22-year old rookie, McCullers fluttered between electric and inconsistent. He had seven starts of at least 7IP and nine starts of 5IP or fewer. In eight of those nine starts of 5IP or fewer, he threw at least 88 pitches. The one start in which he didn't throw 88 pitches was the awful no good horrible very bad August 3 start at Dallas in which he got blooped to death for 7H/6ER. He would nibble and his pitch count would climb, and he would leave the game. It's the way of the rookie.
Interestingly enough, after that August 3rd start, McCullers would spent the next 19 days back in Corpus, presumably to freshen up and get a break under the tutelage of Doug Brocail (and cynically to allow for more service time to elapse, given the sudden nature of his call-up, to avoid Super Two status).
McCullers came back on August 23 with a new pitch that he described as "slider-slurvish" and rattled off seven straight quality starts - he didn't allow more than 3ER in his final eight starts of the season, throwing 49IP, 41H/18ER, 50K:15BB.
McCullers started the Game Of Which We Shall Not Speak, throwing 6.1IP, 2H/2ER, 7K:2BB - the only damage coming on a 2-run Sal Perez home run. McCullers hit Perez in the 6th and left the game, but Will Harris got Alex Gordon to strikeout and Terrance Gore was caught stealing to end the 6th with the Astros up 3-2 and only six outs away from winning the game and Astros fans thought that we were going to get to watch the Astros play for the AL Pennant and then the world turned upside down because of Will Harris and Tony Sipp and also because we live in a fallen world and there is no justice only pain.
Overall, McCullers' rookie season was an unqualified success. His 2.8 WAR was 3rd among all rookie starters in MLB. His 9.24 K/9 rate was 2nd among rookie starters with more than 100IP. McCullers' 3.22 ERA edged out Noah Syndergaard's 3.24 for the highest among rookie SPs with 100+ IP. And let's be clear, it wasn't exactly a lucky campaign, either. His 3.22 ERA was backed up by a 3.26 FIP and a 3.50 xFIP with a .288 BABIP-against.
Nah, bro. McCullers' 2015 is exactly why the Astros drafted him. McCullers could be more efficient with his pitches - he threw 5.59 pitches per out and 4.06 pitches per batter. This is somewhat higher than the MLB-average 5.34 pitches per out and 3.79 pitches per batter, but not alarmingly so. Basically, if McCullers can follow the trend he established in the latter part of the season and go deeper into games, then the Astros have themselves a home-grown hard-throwing strikeout ace to go along with Dallas Keuchel.
*2.8 fWAR is tied for 5th with 2012 Lucas Harrell for fWAR by a rookie Astros pitcher.
*McCuller's 9.24 K/9 rate is 3rd-highest by a rookie Astros starting pitcher (behind J.R. Richard's 9.38 in 1973).
*Tampa Bay Times: When talent and a revamped draft collide, McCullers left in limbo (June 2012)