Five years ago, Lance McCullers Jr. was the American Family Insurance USA TODAY ALL-USA Baseball Player of the Year. In what seems like a blink of the eye, the Houston Astros right-handed pitcher is in his third season in the majors and has a chance to make the All-Star team.
The Astros have the best record in baseball and the 23-year-old McCullers is one of the reasons. Going into a scheduled start Friday, he’s 7-1 with a 2.53 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 81.2 innings. Only three pitchers have a better ERA in the majors and two of them, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, have won multiple Cy Young Awards.
He said he’s changed his outlook over the past few seasons to give himself more focus.
“When I first came up, I would say that I really want to pitch well,” McCullers said. “That was my goal. How can I expect myself to face big-league hitters and have no approach? It was just pitch well. Now, with the preparation I have, I have intent with every pitch. I don’t take a batter off and execute and more often than not, that will mean I will win..”
McCullers’ rocket ride saw a lot of turbulence on the way up. In 2012, his senior season at Jesuit (Tampa), he was 13-0 with an ERA of 0.18, but was chosen 41st in the June baseball draft. Interestingly, it was the same spot his father, who pitched for four teams in the majors, mostly as a reliever, was taken in 1982.
Lance Jr. was a two-time mid-season all-star while in the minors, but he was 12-16 as a starter, with an ERA of 3.67 in his three-plus seasons in the minors. In 2015, the first season he was called up to the parent club, he was sent down three times. Last season, he threw only 81 innings because he had two rehab stints.
This past offseason, he stayed in Houston and set club workout records to make himself more durable.
“For me, lifting and training and conditioning, along with what we do for arm care is really the most important side of any sport that most people don’t see,” McCullers said. “The consistent routine of workouts and getting your body right, a lot of athletes don’t realize (to do) until it’s too late. With me having injuries through 2016, I took my training back to square one and focused on what my body needed as far as lifting and recovery.”
McCullers has tried a lot of different workouts: 61-inch box jumps; chopping logs; pushing a Jeep around a parking lot; and a lot of in-gym balance and explosive work.
“It definitely takes a dedicated individual to keep up with the sessions,” said his personal trainer, Nicole Gabriel, who has also trained Hunter Pence, Dominic Brown, Brett Phillips and Sean Rodriguez, among others. “Lance always sets a goal. He’ll try to see how fast he can complete a workout and he’ll put it on the board, to see if anyone else can do it. Oh, my God, he’s so competitive. He is willing to push himself, no matter what day it is.”
Richie Warren, now the baseball coach at Berkeley Prep in Tampa, was McCullers’ coach at Jesuit. He said being sent down his first season made McCullers determined to stay in the majors.
“He struggled a little bit in the minors and a lot of people in the media were trying to convert him to a reliever already,” Warren said. “He already had a little edge because people said he was too short or his arm angle wasn’t right and he’s always tried to prove these people wrong. … He understands the amount of work it takes to compete and to stay. A couple of years ago he got called up and he got sent back down in the middle of the season to control his innings and I don’t think he wants to go back down. That can drive somebody to want to continue to be great.”
McCullers said his competitiveness comes from not knowing how long a career he may have. His father’s career ended in 1993 with a torn labrum after a 10-start stint with the Mariners’ AAA team in Calgary. Lance Jr. was born four days after Lance Sr. was released.
“I want to give this game everything that I have,” he said. “I want to give it the best shot, however good I can be. … My dad has instilled this sense of grit and no quit in me. That’s been my greatest attribute as far as always working. The game can be taken from you when you least expect. We’re here to love this game and try to add a little to it.”
He was reminded of that lesson in a sad way when his former high school training partner, Mariners pitcher Jose Fernandez, was killed in a boating crash near South Beach on Sept. 25 of last year.
“That was tough for me and it has been impossible on his family,” McCullers said. “Penelope, his daughter (who was born Feb. 24), has probably been the greatest blessing for the Fernandez family. I was really affected by it last year when it happened. I wanted to honor him, to keep his memory alive. Everyone makes mistakes in life and some are greater than others. I choose to remember the eight years of the fun-loving, amazing-hearted, live-every-second-like-it’s-your-last kid that I knew and the work he put in to achieve his goals. That’s why I wanted to wear his glove, the model that he wore his rookie year, the same color with his name on it and wear cleats with his initials and his number on it.”
Another inspiration for McCullers is having 40 guys picked ahead of him in the 2012 draft, though he knows teams may have shied away because of signing concerns. His agent is Scott Boras, known for his hardball negotiating and McCullers had committed to Florida, so that was an option.
“I thought I was the best overall high school prospect,” McCullers said. “I still think that. I think there’s a lot of things that go into the draft, whether its politics or who is being hyped at the time. A lot has to do with how those guys viewed me and it wasn’t in a very high light. I performed at every single showcase and every time a scout or a publication had a knock on me, I would work on it and come back with the the tools that were necessary.”
One thing McCullers said he got from his draft experience is it worked out because the Astros were the right fit for him.
“You’re going to make your money in the big leagues,” McCullers said. “I didn’t view it that way when I was 18. My biggest advice for guys going into the draft is not chase the team with the highest pick, but to chase the team that has a vision for you. There were plenty of teams who were higher picks, but they didn’t understand the vision of what I saw for myself. It took the Astros to come back at 41 to understand that and take me and it’s been the biggest blessing of my life.”