SEATTLE - In the days after the worst start of Lance McCullers Jr.'s fledgling professional career, one that ended amid an eight-run fifth inning and exhausted an Astros bullpen on the third day of a three-game series in Minneapolis, Brian McCann approached the 24-year-old righthander.
"Mac said I could possibly look back on it when my career's over and say that could have been the best start of my career," McCullers said. "Because I learned who I have to be and what I have to do for me to be successful."
McCullers spent an entire spring and the first three starts of his third professional season working toward becoming "complete."
The dilemma - a "Catch-22" as he terms it - is balancing the inevitable pitfalls that arrive with his experimentation. He's cognizant they are essential if he is to become the pitcher he envisions, but in the short term, McCullers must wear the unsavory results.
Fourteen innings into his season, McCullers' ERA sits at 7.70, and he has issued 6.4 walks per nine innings. He acknowledged entering last week's start against the Twins with a game plan that did not suit him, humming four-seam fastballs high in the zone against lefthanded hitters.
"My question has always been 'Am I going to do what it takes now at a younger age to try to be who I want to become four years from now?'" McCullers said Monday, a day before he faces the Mariners in his fourth start of the season.
It was not a bad game plan, McCullers said. Video and statistics demonstrated the lefthanders struggled with the pitches. Where McCullers said he erred was approaching the entire game with such an agenda. Perhaps he could have picked out certain hitters or mixed his pitches more.
"The only way I'm going to get there and figure it out is trying different things and trying to grow, and I realized last start that that's not the best way to do it," McCullers said.
His fastball and changeup must become serviceable complements to his devastating curveball, allowing him to navigate a lineup more than two times. McCullers has exited each of his first three starts without getting through a lineup for a third time. Fourteen hitters in their third plate appearance against him are slashing .769/.786/1.308.
When men reach base against him, his hands must hang lower while he pitches out of the stretch. Keeping them high, and flaring his glove out like he's done his whole life, leads to tipping pitches.