Reviewing 2017 Pod Projections: Lance McCullers

Alas, we have finally reached our final 2017 preseason article recap! Welllll, this one shouldn’t have been the last one, but no one wants to read a recap of my David Dahl Pod Projection, right? So we wrap things up by reviewing my Pod Projection for curveball aficionado Lance McCullers, who was coming off around 200 innings of 3.22 ERA ball supported by strong skills over his first two seasons. Health was a question mark, but there was no doubting his talent. Let’s remind ourselves what I forecasted for his 2017 performance and how he actually performed.

IP: 150 (26 games started) Projected vs 118.2 (22) Actual

McCullers was already coming off shoulder and elbow issues in 2016, so projecting his 2017 innings was a real crapshoot. While he did start eight more games this season, he still failed to pitch a full season without landing on the disabled list. This is going to be a recurring problem and the biggest question every year.

K%: 27.4% Projected vs 25.8% Actual

McCullers wasn’t happy with merely a mid-20% strikeout rate in 2015, so he decided to throw his curve every other pitch. That did the trick, pushing his strikeout rate just above 30% in 2016, but he couldn’t sustain such an elite mark. While he kept the majority of those curveball usage gains, the pitch’s SwStk% dipped below 20% (it was above 21% in 2016), and brought his strikeout down along with it. It’s hard to sustain an upper-20% or 30% strikeout rate. Like, real hard. Surprisingly, his four-seamer is pretty crappy, despite above average velocity.

BB%: 9.8% Projected vs 7.8% Actual

McCullers’ percentage of strikes thrown has slowly crept higher, which is a good sign, but doesn’t exactly match up with his walk rates, which began only slightly above the league average, surged into unacceptable territory, and then dropped down below the average. He still throws strikes less frequently than the rest of the league, but the optimist would spin it positively as having room to improve.

GB%/LD%/FB%: 51% / 21.5% / 27.5% Projected vs 61.3% / 19.2% / 19.5% Actual

When a pitcher goes from a 46.5% grounder rate to a 57.3% mark, literally every projection, whether done manually by a human, or automatically by a computer, is going to expect regression the following year. McCullers laughed at such a notion, instead boosting his ground ball rate even higher. It’s rare you see a pitcher with such an elite combination of strikeout and ground ball skills. This is why he’s so exciting.

HR/FB%: 12.0% Projected vs 12.7% Actual

I was essentially going with a league average HR/FB rate for a guy who had a limited MLB track record, but he managed to settle below the average given the leaguewide homer surge. Minute Maid Park boosts homers, so will see how long McCullers could do this. It’s only been 213 fly balls so far, so his current HR/FB rate doesn’t mean much. It takes nearly double that number for the metric to stabilize.

BABIP: .303 Projected vs .330 Actual

Unfortunately, McCullers’ batted ball profile is prone to inflated BABIP marks given all the grounders and lack of pop-ups. That is why I had projected a worse than league average mark. Though he did indeed post a mark above the league average, who expected it to be this high?! His LD% declined marginally, which is a good thing, but he induced a measly two pop-ups all season! We’ll see if he improved upon his batted ball distribution and whether or not that affects his ability to punch out batters.

Below is a comparison of all the preseason projections and the actual results, with highlights for the system with the closest forecast:

Lance McCullers 2017 Projections & Actual
Actual 2017 118.2 7 4.25 1.30 132 10.0 3.0 0.61 25.8% 7.8% 0.330 67.6%
Pod 150 11 3.34 1.26 173 10.4 3.7 0.77 27.4% 9.8% 0.303 75.0%
Steamer 184 13 3.48 1.29 207 10.2 3.9 0.84 26.7% 10.3% 0.299 74.6%
Fans (13) 156 12 3.33 1.27 182 10.5 3.9 0.69 0.316 76.0%
ZiPS 121.3 8 3.34 1.30 147 10.9 3.8 0.89 0.327 77.9%

Sheesh we were all over the map, which each system taking home at least one win. But Steamer prevailed with four of the closest forecasts. It is pretty amazing that for a guy who had just about one season’s worth of innings, we were all so close in ERA, with three of us between 3.33 and 3.34! We most disagreed on the BABIP, and the funny thing is that Steamer forecasted the lowest, yet had the highest ERA projection.

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Thanks for the writeup, Mike. McCullers has long been intriguing due to his K rate, but with his drop in BB and his youth, when he pitches a whole season he’ll be an absolute monster.