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Card Corner: Lance McCullers

I’m hardly an expert on the mechanics of a pitcher, but even I can tell that the finish of Lance McCullers’ delivery in this game against the Blue Jays looks rather painful. When your head is completely turned toward first base just as you’ve released the ball toward home plate, there is something desperately wrong.

As a young reliever with the Padres, McCullers had the kind of talent over which scouts salivate, a powerful right arm that could manhandle opposing hitters. Some folks called him “Baby Goose” because his style mirrored Hall of Fame teammate Rich “Goose” Gossage. I remember well when the Yankees acquired McCullers as part of a package that sent slugging Jack “The Ripper” Clark to the Padres. Reacting to the news with boyish fervor, I thought that the trade would help the Yankees on two fronts. With a 95 mile-an-hour fastball and a knee-bending slider, McCullers appeared to be the young relief ace who could effectively replace the erratic Dave Righetti. That, in turn, would have allowed the Yankees to put Righetti back in the starting rotation, thereby strengthening one of the weakest areas of the team.

Unfortunately, the Yankees didn’t receive my memo. They stubbornly resisted the temptation to change Righetti’s role, instead announcing that McCullers would become his primary setup man in the bullpen. McCullers then compounded the problem by flopping in his first season in pinstripes. After having pitched remarkably well for three seasons in middle relief, McCullers did not take well to a similar role in the Bronx. His ERA rose by more than two runs, from 2.49 to 4.57, despite a reduced workload in 1989. Often unhittable in the National League, McCullers found hitters in the junior circuit to be far less impressed with his arsenal of riding fastballs and diving sliders.

The beginning of McCullers’ second season in New York brought little noticeable change. For some reason, the dominant right-hander of the Padres had become subject to the same strange pitching disease that had affected so many other Yankee veterans in recent years: Rick “Big Daddy” Reuschel, Rich Dotson, Eddie Lee Whitson, Rick Rhoden, etc. After having had success elsewhere, they all pitched appreciably worse in New York. Of course, they were all older pitchers facing the possibility of decline in their thirties. But McCullers was very young, 24 at the time of the trade with the Padres, and owned a power-packed body that seemed relatively impervious to injury. So what exactly was the problem?

Rather than patiently try to find an answer, the Yankees decided to include McCullers in a package for another hotly sought commodity. Enamored with the idea of obtaining a left-handed hitting catcher with power, the Yankees made a trade in the middle of the 1990 season. They sent McCullers and fringe pitcher Clay Parker to the Detroit Tigers for Matt Nokes. And just like that, the Yankees’ apparent closer-of-the-future was no more.

Although it hardly provided me with any consolation, McCullers found no more long-term success in Motown than he had in New York. McCullers pitched reasonably well in eight appearances for the Tigers, but then he developed a blood clot in his pitching arm, costing him all of the 1991 season. By the end of the 1992 season, he was out of baseball, done by the age of 28.

Aside from the late-career injury, I’ve often wondered what went wrong with McCullers. His fall from prominence began with the Yankees, when he was still healthy. Perhaps those twisted pitching mechanics help explain why McCullers faded so quickly after exhibiting the potential to be one of the game’s great closers. Maybe the answer was in the baseball card all along.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Bruce Markusen

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1 Chyll Will   ~  Mar 12, 2010 12:41 pm

I had to wonder out loud about that question, and the first thing I thought of was the the pitching coach Mark Connor during those years. Connor has had mixed results as a major league pitching coach, but I believe by looking just at numbers (I have no idea what his methods were at the time) that he was only as good as the talent available to him. That makes me believe that there are many other factors working with or against a pitcher's success or failure in New York, and it begins in the clubhouse. That may include the prevailing talent on the field or the supporting staff (coaches, training and medical staff); players respond to human stimuli regardless of their potential. The overall effectiveness of "team chemistry" has been hotly debated for some time, but I do believe it has a place in the discussion of what helps and hurts a team. People point to the 1986 Mets and say, "well, those guys didn't get a long at all and still won", but what you may forget is that those guys were competitive and had the will to win, regardless of their differences; who's to say that fighting with each other didn't inspire them to compete with each other for the best play?

Bringing it back to the Yanks, during that time there were quite a lot of factors playing against the Yanks at the time early 90's), including a drain of talent (having traded away their top talent throughout the eighties, the well ran dry and they were they were stuck for ready-made MLB talent. Their front office operations were a mess (right into when Steinbrenner was forced to abdicate his managing partnership), their scouting and field operations were reflective of the problems in the upper echelons of the Yankee hierarchy and their leadership was devoid of person at the MLB level. With Steinbrenner removed, Gene Michael and newly minted manager Buck Showalter were able to rebuild the system and allow their hidden gems to shine in an alternately supportive environment.

I think Lance, like so many pitchers and players of promise during that time, simply fell through the cracks due to a dysfunctional system and the resulting pressures from within and around to acclimate to it, but I'm guessing...

2 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Mar 12, 2010 12:58 pm

I have a different McCullers card with him in a similar facing-away-from-the-plate, part of his delivery. I always think of him when I watch Hideki Okajima pitch.

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