The Houston Astros promoted right-handed pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. to the major league roster yesterday and he will make his big league debut tonight against the Oakland Athletics in Houston. While he is making the jump directly from Double-A to the majors, his performance this year in the Texas League has been little short of amazing.
McCullers Jr. comes with good bloodlines: his father Lance McCullers was a second round pick himself back in 1982 and pitched 526 innings in a seven-year big league career. This background by itself was enough to get Junior on the scouting radar as an amateur, but even without that factor he would have been an early draft pick. Selected in the supplemental first round in 2012 from high school in Tampa, he has reached the Show in a little less than three years of pro work.
The fastball is special, up to 97-98 with the four-seamer and consistently in the mid-90s. His breaking ball is excellent and has the appearance of either a power curve or hard slider depending on the specific pitch. It is NOT a slurve, however, and has plenty of bite.
When he was drafted, there were concerns that McCullers might end up as a reliever. The two key factors were development of his change-up and sharper control. He had some ups-and-downs last year in the High-A California League, posting a 5.47 ERA with a 115/56 K/BB in 97 innings for Lancaster. That's a tough environment for any pitcher but reports indicated that his change-up did not progress as hoped and his command was inconsistent.
That looks much different this year. Through 29 innings for Corpus Christi in the Double-A Texas League, McCullers has a 0.62 ERA with a 43/11 K/BB and 15 hits allowed. He's given up just two earned runs (and one unearned). Note the improved strikeout rate, very impressive considering that he was already fanning more than a hitter per inning. He's bumped the Ks from 10.67 K/9 to 13.35 K/9, despite pitching at a more difficult level of competition.
He still has the hot fastball and the breaking ball but reports from the Texas League indicate that his change-up has taken a large step forward this spring, giving him three plus pitches. His control has improved, too, his BB/9 dropping from 5.31 to 3.49. Better command and the enhanced change-up have quieted concerns about McCullers moving to the bullpen and there are few doubts about his ability to start at this point.
Three quality major league pitches, quickly improving command of those pitches, and big league bloodlines make for a nice package. As with any young pitcher there will probably be some growing pains, but McCullers is a key component for Houston going forward.