Connect with us


The Lance McCullers Problem

Astros Pitcher Lance McCullers Jr.

Time to rip off the band-aid, ditch those rose-colored glasses, and take a hard look at Astros pitcher and fan favorite, Lance McCullers.

Lance McCullers Jr. has been with the Houston Astros since the inception of their current dynasty. From the back end of the rotation as a rookie in 2015, closing out the 2017 ALCS Game 7 with 24 straight power curveballs, leading the depleted 2021 staff as the ace of the rotation, to a solid pitching performances in Game 3 of the 2022 ALDS.

In the brightest moments, he’s been there on the mound to do it. While McCullers declared to bury him in the H, it isn’t without the gaps in his playing career. Lance has been injured nearly every single year and hasn’t made a start yet in what would be his ninth season.

Maybe it’s time to address the elephant in the room.

The Problem

As previously stated, McCullers has been a deadly weapon when healthy in the rotation. He’s had the ability to become a versatile pitcher as his career showcases a flexible transition between roles – from the rotation to the bullpen. His consistent pattern of long term injuries has been the tragic tale. Nearly every season sees McCullers on a long stint to Injured List, a reality that has punctuated his career. Over eight regular seasons, McCullers has participated in 130 games, and has yet to make his season debut this year after two months into the MLB season.

Generally, a pitcher who performs a healthy and reliable season makes around 30-33 starts. Due to constant stints to the IL, McCullers through 2022 has averaged 16 starts per year. This means he is injured for half the season on average.

At this point in his career, it’s become the norm for Astros fans to expect the longest tenured pitcher in their rotation to either make his debut late in the season, or even not at all. McCullers has dealt with back issues and the infamous Tommy John surgery, which kept him out of critical postseason runs in 2019, along with a forearm strain in the 2021 postseason.

What’s more surprising is that he’s only 29 years old. Following the shortened COVID season, McCullers signed a five-year, $85 million extension after proving his ability to become the ace of the Astros pitching staff. In 2021, Houston’s rotation was mostly depleted. Verlander was out for the season because of his own Tommy John surgery. Framber Valdez hadn’t fully developed into the pitcher he is today, Luis Garcia was in his rookie season, and Cristian Javier was still a long reliever. Regardless, they still made it to the World Series.

The Start Of The Injury Bug

What’s arguable is that Lance’s best year could have been 2017. The Tampa Bay native was in the makings of a breakout year after a strong first half. Additionally, he even earned his first All-Star nod. At the end of June before the break, Lance was sporting a 7-2 record in 15 starts, a 2.88 ERA, and 106 strikeouts in 86.3 innings.

Unfortunately, that was all she wrote in the 2017 regular season. His performance struggled after the All-Star break and would eventually go down with a back injury. Aside from McCullers’ postseason heroics when he returned, his regular season felt unfinished.

2018 was more of the same, if not worse. After a relatively solid 22 starts going 10-6 with a sub 3.50 ERA, McCullers would go down with elbow discomfort. Although he returned to the pitching staff after missing most of August and September, Astros decided to use him in the bullpen to avoid further injury.

While McCullers performed well in the playoffs, he ended up having Tommy John surgery in the offseason, which sidelined him the entire 2019 season.

Think about it – in 2019, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke were the stars of Houston’s pitching staff. Imagine if a healthy McCullers had been on the roster. The rotation would have been virtually flawless.

Turning It Around?

Following his one year absence, McCullers returned and pitched well in both the 2020 and 2021 season. Fans and media believed his TJ surgery would be the end of the constant injuries he suffered year after year. This would be the moment where he can finally become healthy and showcase his talent on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.

Following his healthiest regular season in 2021 (3.16 ERA, 28 starts, 162.1 IP, 185 SO), McCullers went down during Game 4 of the ALDS with what appeared to be a forearm stiffness. This injury inevitably sidelined him throughout the rest of the playoffs.

More Of The Same

During the offseason, McCullers continued to have setbacks on his forearm. Initially listed as stiffness, it was later revealed to be a forearm strain. Avoiding surgery that would likely keep him out for another full season, Lance went through months of rehab and didn’t make his debut until mid-August. Even though he started late, he appeared to be back in his old form, pitching 8 starts to a 2.27 ERA in 47.2 innings.

Given his health, his postseason performance was, albeit, a mixed bag. The strong performance in Game 3 against the Seattle Mariners helped the Astros secure a sweep to the ALCS for the sixth straight year. During their celebration to the ALCS, shrapnels of a champagne bottle reportedly hit Lance’s surgically repaired elbow. This event later pushed his Game 3 start to Game 4 against the New York Yankees. Although Lance mentioned it didn’t affect his pitching, his performance in Game 4 was underwhelming.

Lance had to fight through every inning to keep the Astros in this game. Although Houston eventually came out on top to sweep, McCullers’ start in the World Series was much worse. In Game 3 of the World Series, Lance performed the worst postseason start of his career, giving up six runs including five homers against the Philadelphia Phillies. Houston went on to win their second ring in franchise history on the pitching performances of Javier, Garcia, and Valdez.

Injury Woes Continue

As of today, that was the last time Lance McCullers Jr. has stepped on a pitchers mound in an MLB game. He’s been working on rehabbing his right forearm as he reportedly reinjured it in February during Spring Training. Originally slated to make his season debut last month, Lance suffered another setback and is no longer throwing on the mound.

It’s arguable that the champagne shrapnel likely caused lingering effects to his right forearm, worsening it over time. Having another injury-riddled season to McCullers’ career feels like Deja Vu and is another blow to an already depleted rotation. With Verlander now playing for the New York Mets, Luis Garcia out with Tommy John Surgery, and Jose Urquidy out with shoulder inflammation, there’s only so much the Astros can replace.

Even with all this turmoil, Houston is still #1 in the league in ERA. With a multitude of both rookie and AAA pitchers in Brandon Bielak, Ronel Blanco, Hunter Brown and JP France making rounds in the rotation, it’s unlikely their pitching will continue to dominate in the long run.

Dana Brown Needs To Make A Decision

With McCullers sidelined yet again for an undisclosed amount of time, GM Dana Brown should consider looking in packaging him in a trade. Lance’s contributions to this team’s success have been invaluable, but it doesn’t outweigh the countless times he’s been unavailable. Both 2019 and 2021 could have ended up as World Series wins had McCullers been available to play.

It’s been too much baggage to withstand another year of Lance going through injuries. When on the mound, he can still be electric and contribute. But that’s only when he’s healthy. The timing of his season debuts remain a mystery, year after year.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a positive sign of loyalty when you declare yourself to be “buried in the H.” It’s frustrating when there’s a lack of consistency. In the end, Brown knows that the MLB is a business, and hopefully he will stick to what gets his Houston Astros consistent wins.


Jeremy Gretzer is a contributor on Back Sports Page. Along with receiving his MBA in Marketing, He has over a year in sports journalism, and has interviewed various NBA figures such as Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, along with players such as Jarred Vanderbilt, Jabari Smith Jr. and Alperen Sengun. Gretzer has a podcast on YouTube called Cut The Nets which airs every Tuesday night along with his co-host Brian Ramos. For more on Jeremy, his Twitter is @Jr_Gretzer and Instagram (@J.r.gretzer).




Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Featured Articles

Featured Writers

More in Features