HOUSTON – When Lance McCullers of the Houston Astros takes the mound in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday night, he’ll have two incredibly powerful weapons with him.
First, he’ll have the power of the Astros analytics department – perhaps the most advanced in the major leagues – giving him all the information he needs to be successful against a Los Angeles Dodgers lineup that won 104 games during the regular season.
Second, he’ll have one of the best curveballs in the majors at his disposal. And he won’t be afraid to use it.
After all, in his last appearance in this year’s playoffs, McCullers finished off the New York Yankees with four shutout innings of relief in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. He also finished them off by throwing his curveball on each of his last 25 pitches.
The Astros analytics department determined that the fastball-first Yankees were susceptible to the curve, but McCullers still had to go out and execute.
“In that situation, you read and react,” McCullers says. “You understand that you can continue to throw it, continue to throw it, continue to throw it. If it works, don’t fix it.”
That he was able to so well even amazes his manager, former catcher A.J. Hinch.
“I've never been around or never caught a pitcher like McCullers, who literally the last 25 pitches you don't even have to put a sign down. (Catcher Brian) McCann just said ‘bring it.’
“It's unique,” Hinch says. “And it shows the quality of the pitch. Because hitters, he's not sneaking up on anybody with his stuff. People know.”
Among starting pitchers, McCullers throws the hardest curveball in the game – at an average of 85.6 mph this season, according to Fangraphs. When he’s able to spin it up to the plate with that kind of velocity, it can be almost unhittable.
The origin of that devastating curveball may have a little something to do with genetics. Lance McCullers Jr. is the son of former big leaguer Lance McCullers, who spent seven years with the Padres, Yankees, Tigers and Rangers from 1985-92.
But the curve the younger McCullers’ throws isn’t anything like the old-school version from his father’s generation.
He digs his index finger into the seam and with his thumb underneath, he’s able to spin the ball with tremendous force. It’s a knuckle-curve, really. However it’s classified, it’s a definite weapon.
He can throw it for strikes. Or he can make hitters go fishing for it in the dirt. He has so much confidence in that curve, it doesn’t really matter if hitters know it’s coming.
Dodgers left-hander Rich Hill, another curveball aficionado, saw McCullers’ performance in the ALCS and says it was “awesome” to watch him throw so many curves in a row.
“You may lose a little bit of deception, but with that said on that point, you are also in an environment where you have to go with your best pitch,” Hill says. “And if your best pitch is a breaking ball, if it happens to be a breaking ball, you've got to go with your best, right?”
McCullers threw his curveball 47% of the time this season, while Hill's usage dropped from 42.4% in 2016 to 37.5%. McCullers admits there's something of an appreciation society among curveball junkies.
"You look at a lot of guys who have success throwing the breaking balls and all those guys kind of pulling together," McCullers says. "But for me it's been kind of an experience to get here to get where I am. My first year in the league I think I almost threw close to -- I only threw about 32% breaking balls. But as time moved on I've learned to pitch better with that pitch. Obviously the numbers have climbed.
Indeed, being able to throw a pitch is one thing, but knowing when to throw it is another. That’s where the analytics come in.
McCullers admits to being a numbers guy. And his teammates know it.
“Lance McCullers,” says Astros closer Ken Giles. “He’s all about that spin rate.”
When he arrived in Houston in 2015 amid the statistical revolution in the front office under general manager Jeff Luhnow, McCullers couldn’t get his hands on enough information.
(“It’s like a wormhole,” he says.) It got to the point where his teammates had to tell him to back off a little.
But now he’s found a happy medium where he’s able to get the right information – about himself and his opponents – and blend that with what he experiences out there on the mound.
“You can have any plan you want. You can look at any numbers you want. When you get out there nothing can replace the ability to read and react with your eyes,” McCullers says. “The preparation with analytics AND experience is what I lean on the most.”
He’ll have both of them going for him as the Astros take the field for Game 3 in search of their first-ever World Series title. Guess what’s going to be a major part of his game plan?
“I do have a great breaking ball. I throw it a lot,” he says. “I can throw it more and I can throw it less, but I still have other abilities with other weapons. So people can’t just sit on it because I have other good pitches as well.”