He is 21 years old, 6'2", 205 pounds, and can throw a baseball 100 miles per hour. He is the son of the ex-major league pitcher, a fascinating pitching prospect who announced himself on Wednesday with the most dominant pitching performance by a rookie since Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game 17 years ago. He is the X-factor in the American League West race, the key to turning the Astros from a cute early-season Cinderella story into one of the AL’s most dangerous teams. He is Lance McCullers, and he is following in the footsteps of his pal and workout partner, the Marlins' Jose Fernandez, a fellow Tampa product.
“Lance can be like Jose—Lance can be great,” says Orlando Chinea, the pitching guru from Cuba who worked with McCullers this past winter in Tampa—six days a week for 11 weeks—and helped him turn into one of the most enthralling young pitchers of the 2015 season. It was through Fernandez that McCullers met Chinea, who was the pitching coach for the Cuban National Team in the 1990s and spent four years in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants. Chinea is a guru with an East-meets-West philosophy; he tutored Orlando and Livan Hernandez and Jose Contreras, as well as Fernandez, and now works as an instructor in the Tampa area. He is a small, silver-haired man who smokes cigars while he barks out instructions and likes his pitchers training “in the natural environment, away from the gym.”
A few days a week, McCullers—who worked with Chinea through high school and reunited with him this winter after a rough 2014 season in the minors—pushed 4,000-pound cars in a parking lot, between 100 to 150 meters in distance, for lower body work. Days ended with McCullers standing over a tree trunk and swinging an ax 400 times into the wood, alternating horizontal and vertical swings with 30 reps, an exercise to maximize the shoulder’s structural rotation. “He’s stronger now,” says Chinea. “More explosive. His adjustments and improvements over the last few months—unbelievable.”
Making his fourth career start Wednesday night, McCullers piled up 11 strikeouts and walked none, allowing one run in a complete game over Baltimore. At 21 years and 244 days, he became the youngest pitcher with double-digit strikeouts in a complete game since Wood in 1998. In his four starts since his promotion to the big leagues on May 18, McCullers has posted a 1.88 ERA and a 29/6 K/BB ratio in 24 innings, this following a stint at Double A in which he struck out 43 in 29 innings with a 0.62 ERA.
This is why Houston—owners of the AL’s best record at 34–21 entering the weekend—is dangerous. As other contenders try to retool by making dubious trades (read: the Mariners), the Astros can turn to their stacked farm system to improve the major league team. People question Houston’s staying power because of the rotation behind Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, but now here is McCullers, who a year ago was struggling at Class A Lancaster—he posted a 5.47 ERA over 97 innings—but now, suddenly, is a factor in the wide-open West. Preposterously talented shortstop Carlos Correa, who is hitting .327/.400/.596 with 10 home runs and 18 stolen bases in the minors, could be next on his way to Houston.
It’s just about impossible, in this day and age of prospect lists and exhaustive scouting reports and video, for a top young talent to sneak up on us. But in an Astros system loaded with talent—from Correa to Mark Appel to Vincent Velasquez to Colin Moran—McCullers has skated under the radar, even though he was the 41st pick in 2012 (a part of general manger Jeff Luhnow’s first draft class) and even though he was nearly unhittable to start the season in the minors. His poor command last year—he walked 56 batters in 97 innings—suggested that he was a year or two away from the big leagues entering '15, and most likely headed for a relief role in the long term in Houston, but McCullers was unhittable at Double A to start the season, with an absurd 0.62 ERA over 29 innings. What changed? “He threw with a short arm delivery,” Chinea says, “so we worked on [making] his vertical angle higher, in order to maximize his motion. His motion is more explosive, his vertical angle is bigger. His delivery is more fluid, more smooth.”
McCullers’s primary pitch is a fastball that touches the upper 90s. (He hit 100 mph a few times at Jesuit High in Tampa.) His mid-80s curveball is his out pitch, though his changeup is still a work in progress. At Chinea’s suggestion, McCullers this year also began throwing a sinker. “He’s unpredictable because he’s so hard to read—he throws any pitch from the same arm angle,” Chinea says. Ask Chinea for the pitcher that McCullers most reminds him of, and he invokes the name of a Japanese pitching great: Masumi Kuwata, the longtime ace of the Yomuiri Giants. “Kuwata had the same build as Lance, throws with the same motion, same repertoire. But Kuwata was also so smart on the mound—calm. Lance is close to him in this way.”
Two years ago, a 20-year-old Fernandez won NL Rookie of the Year honors and finished third in the Cy Young voting. Chinea may have produced another Rookie of the Year winner in McCullers. “Jose has a bigger frame, but Lance is in some ways stronger—he’s stronger in the lower body. His pitches can be just as devastating. And I think mentally, Lance is more mature.” Ask the old coach if McCullers can be as good as Fernandez, and he says, “I don’t want to compare them. I love them both.”
He says simply, “Lance can be great.”