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Power Breaking Ball Proves McCullers Jr. Could Be the Future of the Astros' Rotation

The righty tossed four scoreless innings out of the pen for the 'Stros in Game 7 of the ALCS to secure their first World Series berth since 2005.

Lance McCullers Jr. has been absolutely outstanding for the Astros this postseason. The 24-year-old has thrown 13 innings in the playoffs with a 2.08 ERA. This was highlighted by his amazing performance out of the bullpen in Game 7 against the Yankees, where he shut down a powerful New York lineup for four innings in a rare relief role. 

This was a role McCullars wasn't accustomed to. He was brought up to the big leagues as a starter, and that's all he has really known. But, the 'Stros pen has been struggling to get the job done, so AJ Hinch tried bringing in McCullers to finish it up and sure enough, it worked.

The Florida native has been pretty solid all year for Houston. He has great stuff. A lively, high 90s fastball with arm-side tail, a very good circle change, and the best for last: the knuckle curve. The pitch has everybody talking and is one of the main reasons he's endured so much success.

The Curveball

McCullers finished Game 7 off throwing 24 straight curveballs to six different hitters. The one at bat he didn't throw any against Todd Frazier was the one free pass he gave up. It's weird because usually, most guys feel they have more command with their fastball. With McCullers, it's the opposite. He's still young and struggles with the fastball command at times by trying to overthrow. But with his curve ball, he seems to have more command with it — even behind in the count. The numbers show the belief he has in the pitch. According to Fangraphs, McCullers ranked second in the big leagues during the regular season, throwing 298 curve balls when behind in the count. The only pitcher above him on that list was Drew Pomeranz, who also throws the curveball a lot, but it's not nearly as sharp and powerful as McCuller's deuce. 

A Deeper Look into the Numbers

According to baseballsavant.com, when it comes to the knuckle curve, opposing hitters are compiling a dismal .200 average against McCullers. He's also induced 183 swings and misses from the pitch. When it comes to the heater, opposing lineups are hitting .308 with a slugging percentage of .455. He struggles to command the fastball; therefore, it tends to be left up in the zone, and that results in getting hit around. Then, about his changeup: well, it's not much better. They have hit .372 off the change. All his pitches are plus offerings. It's just the command of the heater and change they need to work on.

The knuckle curve, though, could be the most powerful curve ball in the game. We know there is some filthy breaking balls across the big leagues. Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, just to name a few. But, the thing that is unique about McCullers' knuckle curveball is the spin rate and velocity on the pitch. The average spin rate on a knuckle curveball in the big leagues is 2,458.77 revolutions per minute. McCuller's knuckle curve has a spin rate of 2,873.98 rpms, more than 400 rpms higher than the average.

Then there's the velocity. The average speed on a knuckle curve in the big leagues is 80.39. McCuller's has an average velocity on the pitch of 85.63 MPH, but he has gassed it up to 88 MPH at times. Think about that. His curve ball is reaching the speed of the fastballs of certain pitchers in the majors. More spin rate, and the harder the pitch is, the more difficult it is to hit. Thanks to such a rapid spin rate, the pitch has extremely sharp break and dives right out of the zone. Thanks to the speed of the offering, it doesn't give hitters much time to figure out if they want to swing or not because it's such a hard pitch. The belief he has in the breaking ball has shown, too. He threw the curve ball 47 percent of the time during the regular season. 

He should stay in the rotation in the long run.

There has been lots of talk that maybe Houston should use McCullers out of the bullpen in the World Series after the stellar performance he had out of the pen against the Yankees. He will round out the starting rotation in the Fall classic, but who knows if we could see him out of the pen in game six or seven, if we get to that point. Personally, I don't think it would be a bad idea to bring him out of the pen at some point. But I believe he does have a very bright future as a starter for this Astros team.

McCullers has great stuff. He just needs to figure out the command with the heater and the changeup because the raw stuff is there when it comes to movement and velocity. After all, he's only 24 years old. He hasn't even hit the prime of his career quite yet. I don't believe moving McCullers to the pen for good would be a good idea because his stuff is too good to not be a starter. Sure, he had some injuries this year, but he has been a starter his entire life, from the minor leagues to the big leagues.

With arguably the best power curve ball in the majors, McCullers has the chance to be very special. The future looks bright for him as the building block of the Astros rotation for many years to come.

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