You see the fire in his eyes and the fire when he throws. You blink and the catcher is already throwing the ball back. The batter swung and missed by a three feet. The radar gun says that the pitch was 100 miles per hour. Two pitches later, the batter shakes his head as he walks back to the dugout. No high school pitcher has ever been a first round pick. Is Lance McCullers Jr. the one? No. For a while McCullers, a senior at Tampa Jesuit High School, had a chance. But that’s over. His stock worked it way up and then it shot down. The pitches didn’t change. The player didn’t change. The perception simply changed.
Lance McCullers doesn’t look like anything special. He is 6’2″, 205, just about filled out. He’s not the 6’4″, 180 prospect that scouts love to see. Heightening evaluators’ concerns, perhaps as a result of his stature, is the effort that comes with his delivery. It’s not fluid, it’s not smooth. It’s not majestic. It’s not a stream- it’s a rocket. He rears back and throws bullets. He’s a max-effort guy and gets the most out of every pitch he throws. But that’s not the right mindset for a starting pitcher. Starting a game is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to leave something in the tank. But more importantly, McCullers mechanics could lead him to be vulnerable to injury. His arm wraps around his left shoulder, providing deception (as if he needs it), but also putting a lot of stress on his shoulder and elbow. Those concerns caused many scouts to project McCullers as a reliever, dropping him down from the first five picks range to the mid to late first round.
No one denies that McCullers’ stuff is nasty. His fastball touches triple digits and never gets below the mid-90’s. It’s simply not fair when his fastball is hitting 97+ MPH with late sink. McCullers builds off his true plus-plus fastball with a mid-80’s slider that looks like his fastball out of his hand before featuring devastating late break. McCullers has also made strides with a changeup and mixes in an occasional big curveball as well. McCullers has fought through control problems in the past, also a byproduct of his troubling delivery, but he has made huge strides with control although his command still needs to be sharpened. If his control and command can be just solid, his two incredible pitches in his fastball and slider give him the upside of an ace in the major leagues.
Over the course of his senior year at Tampa Jesuit High, McCullers relaxed his delivery a little bit, improving his control and assuaging at least a little bit of the delivery concerns. Scouts have pegged McCullers as a future reliever for a while, but some of them have changed their minds. McCullers is trudging his way back up the draft boards. He’s not the topflight talent that scouts had considered him previously, but he now looks to go in the 10-20 range of the draft. McCullers’ Tampa Jesuit High team was upset in the Florida state semifinals, with McCullers throwing 6 shutout innings, striking out 9 while walking 3, but his bullpen was unable to keep Plantation American Heritage High in check. Tampa Jesuit, which had previously been ranked the top high school baseball team in the country, ended its season on a big down note. But McCullers’ star could still be rising.
Lance McCullers may have the highest upside of any pitcher in the 2012 MLB Draft if he can remain a starting pitcher as a pro. He has a dominating arsenal and has made progress at overcoming his deficiencies to give himself the best chance to remain a starter. Some team will take him in the first round and see what he can become. McCullers isn’t a crisp prospect that you can’t get enough of. But he gets everything out of his ability and we’ll have to see how far that takes him.