Lance McCullers Jr.
Lance Graye McCullers Jr.
- Bats Left, Throws Right
- Height 6' 1", Weight 190 lb.
- High School Jesuit High School (Tampa)
- Debut May 18, 2015
The son of big leaguer Lance McCullers, pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. was selected by the Houston Astros in the supplemental first round of the 2012 amateur draft with the 41st overall pick. His father was also drafted 41st overall in his draft back in 1982. McCullers would have been drafted even higher if there had not been concerns about his "signability". However, he soon signed for a bonus of $2.5 million. He had been named the USA Today All-USA High School Player of the Year in his senior year in high school, when he went 13-0 with an 0.18 ERA for Jesuit High School in Tampa, FL.
His first professional season, in 2012, was underwhelming, as he finished 0-4 in 8 starts between the Greeneville Astros and GCL Astros, although his ERA was a decent 3.46. Like many players coming off a busy college season, McCullers worked on a strict pitch count that season, and pitched only 26 innings, making it difficult for him to pick up any wins. In 2013, he spent a full season with the Quad Cities River Bandits, going 6-5, 3.18 in 25 games. He pitched 104 2/3 innings and struck out 177 batters. 2014 saw him move to the Lancaster JetHawks of the California League. Like many other pitchers before him, including his teammate Mark Appel, he found the going tough in the high thin air of the minor leagues most hitter-friendly ballpark, and ended up at 3-6, 5.47 in 25 games. he only logged 97 innings, but recorded 115 strikeouts during that span. While his numbers may not have been eye-popping during that stretch, he still made Baseball America top 100 prospect list in both 2013 and 2014.
In 2015, he was assigned to the Corpus Christi Hooks of the AA Texas League to start the year and began the year in dominant form, going 3-1, 0.62 in his first 6 games, with 43 strikeouts in 29 innings. He was promoted to the AAA Fresno Grizzlies in mid-May, but before he could pitch for them, he was called up to Houston to make his debut on May 18th. Wearing some exclusive "Batman"-themed shoes, he allowed 1 run on 3 hits and 3 walks in 4 2/3 innings while striking out 5 against the Oakland Athletics; he was replaced by Joe Thatcher when his pitch count began to run high and ended up with a no-decision. He won his first game on May 23rd, 3-2 over the Detroit Tigers, helped in part by a 5-4-3 triple play in the 3rd inning. He recorded his first career complete game in a 3-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles on June 3rd, striking out 11 in the process. At 21, he was the youngest regular starting pitcher in the majors, and while he was pitching well, the Astros were concerned that he was running a high innings count while the team was headed for a postseason berth for which they would want him to be available. They thus decided to send him back to the minors for a spell following a start on August 3rd, in order to ease off his workload and have him back at full strength for the final push to the playoffs. It turned out that his final start was a disaster, as he recorded only one out while giving up 6 runs on 7 hits and a walk in losing, 12-9, to the Texas Rangers. He came back on August 23rd after one brief pitching appearance in AA and took his regular turn in the starting rotation the rest of the way, finishing at 6-7, 3.22 in 22 starts. Part of the reason for his low win count was that the Astros did not want to let him pitch deep into games to keep his innings under control (he ended up with 125 2/3 in the majors, and 32 in the minors). He started Game 4 of the ALDS against the Kansas City Royals on October 12th and did very well, giving up 2 runs on only 2 hits in 6 1/3 innings as Houston took a 6-2 lead, but the bullpen imploded in the 8th inning as Kansas City rallied for 5 runs and eventually ended up winning 9-6.
McCullers was counted on to be a top starter for the Astros in 2016, but he encountered a setback in spring training when he was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder issue and had to miss the beginning of the year. He only made his season's debut on May 13th. He made only 14 starts at the major league level, being sent down to AAA on August 3rd, where he did not pitch again. There was no mention of an injury, but the Astros wanted to be very careful with the young pitcher, limiting his innings and holding him in reserve in case the team made the postseason, which did not happen. He had done well with Houston, going 6-5, 3.22 with 106 strikeouts in 81 innings. He was back in the starting rotation at the start of 2017 and was pitching well for what was the best team in the majors in the first month and a half of the season. Growing up in Tampa, FL, he had struck up a friendship with another very talented high school pitcher, Jose Fernandez, and he was quite affected by his untimely death in September of 2016. When he made his first appearance in Miami, FL after the tragedy, on May 17, 2017, he paid his friend tribute by wearing cleats with Jose's initials and uniform number. He then went on to pitch a brilliant game, defeating the Miami Marlins, 3-0, allowing only 3 hits in 6 innings to lower his ERA to 2.65 on the year. He was named the American League Pitcher of the Month for May after going 4-0, 0.99 with 37 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings.
- Jim Halley: "ALL-USA lookback: Five years after being named player of the year, Lance McCullers may be an All-Star", USA Today High School Sports, June 30, 2017.