Kids grow up playing catch with their fathers, learning the ropes of baseball from them. Lance McCullers got an advanced education in the game when he was growing up.
The son of the seven-year veteran by the same name, the junior McCullers was a first-round pick by the Astros in 2012 Draft. After a solid pro debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and the Appalachian League that summer, McCullers made the jump to the Class A Midwest League, earning All-Star honors while going 6-5 with a 3.18 ERA. He ended up tied for fifth in the league with 117 strikeouts over 104 2/3 innings for the Quad Cities River Bandits.
Now about to embark on his second full season as a pro, McCullers took the time to talk about his dad, his repertoire and his season.
MiLB.com: How do you feel your 2013 went?
McCullers: We won the championship, which, at any level, is always the goal. From a team perspective, we had a great season. No matter how well you pitch, no matter what awards you win, whether you're in the big leagues and win the Cy Young or whether you're in the Midwest League and you had a rough year or a good year, you can always get better, always reflect on things to make improvements. I think some parts of my game were really good. I think other parts of my games were average or mediocre at times. That's pitching, that's learning and that's why you're in the Minor Leagues. I think this gives me an opportunity to strive and make things great.
MiLB.com: What do you think you need to improve on?
McCullers: I think I need to work on overall command. I think I try to nitpick and try to be too perfect when I'm facing these hitters which is something I worked on last year with our pitching coach Dave Borkowski. We really worked on trying to attack that zone. I just try to nibble a bit too much. As a power pitcher, I can go after those guys a little more. Not go 3-2 every time and force early contact. Get that quick out, keep the pitch count down and go deeper into games.
MiLB.com: What is it like having a dad who pitched in the Majors?
McCullers: It's different for sure. I think a lot of people can't say that they have a dad who pitched at the highest level and accomplished what is everyone's highest goal, which is to put on a jersey and represent a city or sometimes a state. To have a dad who went through that is something I lean on, and it's really cool to be able to pick his brain and being able to say, "Hey, I have a dad who was a big leaguer."
MiLB.com: How big an influence has he been?
McCullers: Huge. From the time I was little, I told my dad I wanted to play baseball as a living. He always told me it was going to be a lot of hard work with a lot of rewards. I don't think without him -- along with my entire family, but especially him -- I would be where I'm at.
MiLB.com: Both you and your dad were drafted 41st overall -- were you aware of that?
McCullers: It was pretty cool actually. When I started to kind of slip, we knew the teams that could draft me and we were looking at a list, he looked at me and said, "Wouldn't it be awesome if you got drafted 41st overall?" I got really lucky that I got such a great organization. It's really strange but really awesome that we got to experience that together.
MiLB.com: What's it like being part of an organization with all those high-level prospects?
McCullers: I think it's great because when you go to Spring Training, you go to your affiliate, you're constantly pushing yourself. You're constantly wanting to be better and develop and get to the highest level. I remember last year, the arms we had. Every time they go out there and throw a good game, you want to go out there and throw a great game.
I think it's a unique situation the Astros are in -- you're going to camp being a star from wherever you were, in high school or college. Usually when you go to camp, there are a couple of stars. When you go to the Astros, everywhere you turn there's a guy who could be a Cy Young winner or an All-Star. I think it's really cool to see that kind of talent on the field and it makes you want it more.
MiLB.com: Talk me through your pitches.
McCullers: My primary pitch is my four-seam fastball. Depending on what radar gun is behind the plate, that's mid- to upper-90s. That's my predominant No. 1 pitch. I also throw a two-seam pitch that's more of a complementary pitch. I throw a hard, spiked curveball which is in the mid-80s. That's my No. 1 put-away pitch. I throw a changeup. Last year, I threw a four-seam changeup, I'm messing with the grip a little bit to find something a little bit more comfortable for me. That's something that has good movemement and has good life. I think it can be a good pitch for me -- it's just up to me trusting it. That's the biggest thing. I'm currently working on a complementary slider so that I have a different view of a breaking pitch.
MiLB.com: What was it like to pitch with Mark Appel?
McCullers: Obviously when a guy is that highly touted, you know he's good. I remember watching him in college and I knew he was great. I think the biggest thing with Mark is how genuine he is. You hear how great guys are through the grapevine -- you always want to see in person how nice the person is. Let me tell you: Mark Appel is going to be a big league All-Star and he's never going to do anything that overshadows who he is off the field. Mark is just the person who is going to be a great big league pitcher and even better person. When you talk to Mark, you can't help but get lost in his energy as a person.
MiLB.com: How have you spent your offseason?
McCullers: This offseason I really cracked down on myself and my eating habits and training. I trained every day of the week, I'm eating the right things-- there are no shortcuts. I train six times a week. If I'm not in the gym, then I'm taking runs. I just got a puppy, she loves to run, so that works out. I'm just trying to be a professional, not just in the season but in the offseason and understanding that this is a year-round profession. I don't think I've ever been in better shape.
MiLB.com: What are your goals for the upcoming season?
McCullers: I think the ultimate goal is to continue to pitch every game and to get better. Personal goals: I would love to play in the Futures Game, to represent the Astros on such a big stage. I would love to go out there and keep my strikeouts up and my walks down. I know that's something the organization strives for. When I get out there, it's not just for the now, it's for the future.
MiLB.com: Was it tough not getting to pitch in the playoffs?
McCullers: I think any competitor that has been pitching the whole year wants to be out there for his team -- feels like he's letting his team down when I'm just dressing for the game, and I know that I have no chance to get in there and help my team win. I think the one thing that separates me is that I'm the ultimate competitor. Whether I have my best stuff or my worst stuff or I have a broken leg, I'm going to go out there and give it everything I have and find a way to help my team to win. I felt like I was letting them down. They told me it was best for my career to be shut down at the end of the season, so I put my cheerleading cap on and I was so happy for the guys that were able to play. I was so happy for the guys, the coaching staff and our trainer.
MiLB.com: How exciting was it to be part of a championship team?
McCullers: In high school, I went to a couple of state championships and never got to win. With Team USA, we went to the games and we didn't win. I've been on a lot of losing ends to exciting championship games. It was nice to finally to be able to win and see the guys fight so hard. It was an awesome experience, especially in my first year of pro ball -- I'll never forget it.
MiLB.com: Are you concerned about pitching in the California League, given the pitching environment in Lancaster?
McCullers: My goal is to be that Game 7 pitcher, where the team can give me the ball in Game 7, and they can rely on you to win. I have to pitch in the Cal League? I think it's a great experience for me. I think it's going to make me throw the ball, make me pitch with my head and not just my velocity. It's going to challenge me, but I love to be challenged. I've never really pitched in a league where the wind is blowing out and the fields are small, so I'm excited for that. If that's where the Astros choose to place me, I'm going to go out there and pitch like any other time. If it's Game 7 and we're playing in the Windy City and the wind is blowing 20 miles out, I'm not going to look at my skipper and say, "I can't go."
MiLB: What are you looking forward to from Spring Training?
McCullers: I think I'm just looking forward to being around the guys again. You're the lone soul, you're training every day, you're throwing bullpens. It's not that team atmosphere, it's not the camaraderie you get when you're with the team and you're playing hard. I'm just looking forward to getting back with the guys and being able to pitch. I'm just excited to start throwing again and get to facing batters.