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What to expect from Lance McCullers post-Tommy John surgery

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HOUSTON – The key to the Astros rotation and possibly the 2020 playoff run is right-handed pitcher Lance McCullers Jr.

McCullers was a big part of the Astros 2017 World Series run with impressive performances in the ALCS and World Series. The Astros missed McCullers in 2019 while he was recovering from Tommy John surgery, performed in November 2018.

When McCullers came up, the team built arguably the top pitching-staff depth in all of baseball. McCullers played with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, Collin McHugh and more. In 2019, the Astros added Zack Greinke, who will be the team’s de facto No. 2 starter in 2020, after a long career as an ace. Greinke’s inclusion as the No. 3 starter was of massive importance to the 2019 playoff run, and now McCullers will hold that spot should the Astros (likely) get to the playoffs.

McCullers is in the unenviable position of pitching coming off Tommy John surgery. Typically, it takes a pitcher a second year of play to recover to pre-surgery numbers and production. We’re going to take a look at four pitchers who compare favorably to McCullers -- right-handed pitchers, with high-level talent, who are roughly 15-20 months from their surgery date (McCullers will start a game 20 months after his surgery, although he was set to start 17 months after surgery).

First, we’ll examine McCullers:

In 2018, McCullers made 22 starts, pitching to a 3.86 ERA, making all the starts through August before experiencing elbow discomfort. Eventually, McCullers came back and pitched three games in relief in the regular season, and five more in the playoffs before his Tommy John surgery.

In 2018, McCullers primarily threw his curveball -- 47.6% of his pitches were curveballs, according to Brooks Baseball. McCullers paired his plus curveball with a power sinker (33% of pitches) and a change-up (15.7%) of his pitches. McCullers switched from a four-seam fastball to a power sinker in 2017.

Lance McCullers Jr.

  • Pre-Tommy John surgery: 3.67 ERA/3.24 FIP in 80 starts over four seasons, averaging 113 IP per year. McCullers has made 22 starts in three of his four full seasons, and 14 in 2016.
  • Tommy John surgery: Nov. 6, 2018
  • Return to action: Presumed July 25, 2020 (20 months out)

The pitchers who have had Tommy John Surgery relatively recently, and are closest in situation to McCullers are Lance Lynn, Joe Ross, Alex Cobb and Shelby Miller.

Lance Lynn

  • Pre-Tommy John surgery: 3.37 ERA/3.36 FIP in 128 starts over five seasons, averaging 189 IP in the four full seasons he started.
  • Tommy John surgery: November 10, 2015
  • Return to action: April 6, 2017 (17 months out)

First season back

  • 2017 season stats: 3.43 ERA/4.82 FIP in 33 starts and 186.1 IP

Lynn did not suffer much drop off when it came to earned run average, having nearly the same success he had before surgery. His FIP (fielding independent pitching) average showed that Lynn was lucky for much of the season. Lynn gave up a .244 batting average on balls in play, which is far below the typical major league average of .290-.300.

Second season back

  • 2018 season stats: 4.77 ERA/3.84 FIP in 29 starts and 156.2 IP

While Lynn struggled in Minnesota to a 5.10 ERA, he recovered late in the year after a trade to the New York Yankees. The massive luck disparity in 2017 bit Lynn in 2018, but on the flipside, his FIP improved, showing the possibility that he was close to the same pitcher he was pre-Tommy John surgery.

In 2019, Lynn would go on to have a great season for the Texas Rangers, finishing 5th in AL Cy Young voting with a 3.67 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 208.1 IP.

RESULT: A good first year back was smoke and mirrors due to extreme batted ball luck, followed by what looked to be a disastrous second year back which in reality saw his game stabilize. By year 3 removed from surgery Lynn was roughly as good as he had been pre-surgery.

Joe Ross

  • Pre-Tommy John surgery: 3.95 ERA/3.90 FIP in 45 starts averaging 85 IP per season - essentially pitching three half-seasons.
  • Tommy John surgery: July 19, 2017
  • Return to action: September 7, 2018 (14 months out)

First season-plus back:

  • 2018: 3 starts, 5.06 ERA in 16 IP
  • 2019: 5.48 ERA/4.59 FIP in 27 games, 9 starts, 64 innings pitched in mixed role

Ross is a power-sinker, slider pitcher much like McCullers is a sinker-curveball pitcher. A once-promising prospect, Ross struggled with shoulder inflammation in 2016 before a rough 2017 season ended by his elbow injury.

In his first season(s) back, Ross struggled to find a role with the 2019 Nationals. He would eventually make a start in the 2019 World Series, getting tagged for four runs in a Game 5 loss.

In the 2019 regular season, Ross’ strikeout numbers were similar to his pre-surgery days, but his walk rate spiked.

RESULT: An early return showed a struggle with command over three starts in 2018 and a mixed role in 2019. While Ross and McCullers are different pitchers (McCullers throws harder and uses the curveball more vs. Ross’ slider), Ross had similar prospect status and was once believed to be an important future piece of the Nationals rotation. Washington clearly kept him in mind since he started a World Series game in 2019. Ross has opted out of the 2020 season, but the early returns post-surgery show a clearly diminished pitcher.

Alex Cobb

  • Pre-Tommy John surgery: 3.21 ERA/3.43 FIP in 81 starts averaging 125 IP in four seasons, with an average of 149 IP in three mostly full seasons.
  • Tommy John surgery: May 14, 2015
  • Return to action: September 2, 2016 (16 months out)

First season back:

  • 2016 Stats: 8.59 ERA/5.60 FIP in 5 starts at the end of the season.

Cobb had a solid first few starts back, pitching to a 3.06 ERA in three starts before getting shelled for 15 runs in four innings in his last two outings. His 2016 play isn’t a fair look based on both sample size and result.

First full season back

  • 2017 Stats: 3.66 ERA/4.16 FIP in 29 starts and 179.1 IP

Cobb’s first real season back set a career-high for innings pitched and mostly looked fine, except for some troubling underlying numbers. In 2013 and 2014, Cobb had gotten his K/9 rate to 8.4 and 8.1. After Tommy John surgery that number dropped to 6.4 in 2017. Cobb had similar pitches to McCullers (Sinker-Splitter-Curveball as his main three) but doesn’t throw as hard, and doesn’t have as sharp of a curveball. Cobb lowered his splitter post-surgery, with a pitch mix close to McCullers'. Despite his lowered velocity, Cobb was able to put up good strikeout numbers before his injury. Those numbers fell off a cliff and predicted his next season.

Second full season back

  • 2018 Stats: 4.90 ERA/4.79 FIP in 28 starts and 152.1 IP

Cobb made a season full of starts, but was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. His HR allowed rate nearly doubled from his pre-surgery year, and his K/9 rate never recovered.

2019: Cobb made the Opening Day start for the Orioles and not much else. Cobb gave up 9 home runs in just 12.1 innings over three starts and missed much of the season due to a hip injury.

RESULT: Cobb’s pre-injury stats and pitch mix resemble a less powerful McCullers. Post-surgery, aside from once decent season 23 months after surgery, Cobb has become a bad starting pitcher. He has a 4.72 ERA post-Tommy John surgery and his strikeout rate never recovered despite the freer swinging of today’s game.

Shelby Miller

  • Pre-Tommy John surgery: 3.67 ERA/3.97 FIP in 120 starts averaging 166 IP in four full seasons as a starter.
  • Tommy John surgery: May 10, 2017
  • Return to action: June 25, 2018 (13 months out)

First season back

  • 2018 Season Stats: 10.69 ERA/6.35 FIP in 5 appearances, including 4 starts

Miller got rocked in his first action back, and eventually fell back on the DL for the rest of 2018. Miller is an interesting case, overall. His pitch mix is not similar to McCullers, as he’s primarily a four-seam fastball pitcher, with a curveball as a secondary pitch. Miller does have a similar pedigree in terms of prospect recognition, as one of the St. Louis Cardinals’ top system pitchers in the early 2010s. Miller was third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2013, pitching to a 3.06 ERA. Miller’s peak came after the Cardinals traded him to Atlanta, where he pitched to a 3.02 ERA in 2015 and earned an All-Star bid. Miller came to Arizona in the much-maligned Dansby Swanson trade and immediately “rewarded” Diamondbacks fans with a 6.15 ERA and injuries behind Zack Greinke in the rotation. The Diamondbacks non-tendered Miller after the 2018 season, giving up on a pitcher who was pretty good between 2013-15.

Second season back

  • 2019 Season Stats: 8.59 ERA/6.40 FIP in 19 appearances, including 8 starts

Miller’s time in Texas with the Rangers did not go well, 25 months removed from Tommy John surgery. Miller got rocked and then released by the Rangers. While his home run rate fell in 2019, his walk rate spiked while his strikeout rate tumbled.

RESULT: A much-hyped prospect and genuinely good pitcher from 2013-15, Miller showed signs of wear in a disastrous 2016 season before his injury. Since being traded to Arizona, Miller has a 6.89 ERA over four seasons (although in innings pitched terms, nearly a regular-season worth of work). Miller has yet to recover from Tommy John surgery, or whatever ailed him starting in 2016.