Houston Astros starter Lance McCullers throws his curveball more often than any starting pitcher in baseball. At this point, opposing hitters seem to know it’s coming and they can do little with it. Case in point: Monday’s start against the Seattle Mariners.
McCullers had his best start of the season in a 2-1 win, allowing one run and five hits in seven innings with 10 strikeouts.
How McCullers won
What’s normally challenging about McCullers' curveball is how hard he throws it. His 85 mph average curveball velocity ranks second in the majors this season. But on Monday, it was movement as much as velocity (he averaged 84.6 mph) that got the job done.
McCullers averaged a season best in movement (7.3 inches of vertical drop) and spin rate (2,173 RPM) with his curveball. His first-inning strikeout pitch to Robinson Cano had his most vertical drop in a strikeout this season (9.8 inches).
McCullers induced a career-high 18 swing-and-misses with his curveball, the second most by any pitcher with that pitch in a game in the past eight seasons (A.J. Burnett, 23 in 2013). His 56 percent miss rate was the highest for any of the 26 starts in which he pitched at least five innings.
Fifteen of his 18 whiffs with the pitch came when he located it in the lower third of the zone or below. Mariners hitters missed on 71 percent of their swings when McCullers located his curveball there compared to 27 percent of their swings elsewhere in the zone.
McCullers threw curveballs on 22 of his 27 two-strike pitches (82 percent), his second-highest percentage in 31 career starts.
All 10 of his strikeouts came on his curveball. He has two starts with 10 curveball strikeouts this season. No one else in the majors has one. Fifty-five of his 66 strikeouts this season (83 percent) have been on that pitch.
That's the highest percentage of strikeouts any starter has had on a single pitch type this season.
McCullers also averaged a season best in fastball velocity (94.4 mph).
What McCullers means
McCullers’ presence has been an impactful one. Astros starting pitchers had a 4.74 ERA (which ranked 23rd in the majors) through May 12, the day before McCullers’ first start of 2016.
Since he came back, Astros starters have a 3.93 ERA, which ranks 10th. McCullers’ ERA stands at 3.57 after his fourth victory this season.