When I sat down with Lance McCullers at Greeneville earlier this month, I pretty much knew what to expect and I wasn't disappointed. It would be difficult to get a bad interview from McCullers. He's very engaging and confident, and I don't think he'll ever falter in finding something to say.
Lance isn't particularly modest about his own accomplishments, but he actually spent more time talking up his friends in the organization and bragging about their talents than his own. And when your best friends are first round pick Carlos Correa, fourth round pick Rio Ruiz and sixth round pick Brett Phillips, you should be bragging.
It is clear that McCullers is the glue that holds the group together. His personality draws people in, but his ability to connect and generosity of spirit keep them there. While I see Rio Ruiz as a leader by example, I see McCullers as the shepherd who will keep the flock together through praise and encouragement.
What was the deciding factor in signing? "I think just knowing that Houston has the best interests for me and they were willing to pay my college scholarship and give me the money I thought was fair for the type of player that I am. I thought it was fair and I thought that the Astros are doing the right things, going in the right direction."
On the new draft rules: "It's almost like the Astros are ahead of the curve as far as [the draft]. I think a lot of teams next year will be taking that same approach. At least a team with a good amount of money in the draft will be taking guys that are certainly deserving to go the top couple picks and then saving some money for maybe some guys later on that may fall because, this new draft system, one rumor out there about signability or anything like in my case, you're not going to be drafted by anybody. Luckily in my situation, the Astros were willing to take a shot on me. I read some of Mr. Luhnow's statements that he was confident that he would get the deal done. That makes you feel excited and they pretty much started negotiating right away and it was done fairly quick, especially compared to last year's rules."
On Jeff Luhnow: "A smart man. Very smart. Knows what he's doing, knows what it's going to take to turn around a franchise. Very, very sharp. Understands the game of baseball. He's doing the right things. In the minor leagues, it's easy to look at last year vs. this year. The whole minor leagues [system] is just loaded now with prospects. It's unbelievable."
What has surprised him most about pro ball?: "I haven't had any big surprises yet. I've enjoyed it a lot. [Under last year's draft deadline, I would probably have signed late] and I've already had six starts in professional baseball and I'm about to have another one tomorrow. [Note: This interview was conducted on August 19th and Lance ended the season with eight starts.] It's gone by pretty fast so far. My first summer in pro ball has gone by pretty fast and I'm just not ready for it to be over yet."
On his pitch repertoire: "I have a 4-seam fastball that sits comfortably in the mid 90's, probably 94, 96 and I can run it up there when I'm feeling good, just all depends on the situation whether I need to or not, up to 97, 98 -- I think 100 a couple of times. My 2-seam fastball sits, I would say, 92, 94, touch 95 with some good movement on it. I have a hard slurve that I throw. It's kind of a cross-breed between curveball and a slider. I throw a circle changeup that I'm really starting to get more consistent with as I'm able to call my own pitches and being able to rely on more."
[Note: If you follow Lance on twitter, you may have seen some back and forth between him, Rio Ruiz and Brett Phillips about shaving their legs. So I had to ask about it.] Who shaved their legs and why?: "Carlos [Correa] and Rio shaved their legs, I don't know why, they just do. So they were always trying to get me and Brett to do it. I still have my hairy legs. I was always there to keep Brett strong to make sure he didn't fold to the evil and when I left the GCL, they got to him. He shaved his legs. I'm the only one still standing."
What has he accomplished in his short season of work?: "Just [getting] some starts under my belt playing against professionals and doing pretty well against these guys who are getting paid as well. I think I am learning how to pitch more and more every day which is the biggest thing I can possibly learn about being a professional pitcher now, just really learning the situation and those kind of things. It's been a short six starts. I went a couple of innings in the GCL, stretching it out a little here, four innings, but I was really looking to finish the year strong and as long as I go out there, whether it's a good start or a bad start, if I can come away from it learning something, then in the long run, it's always positive."
Which Astros pitcher has a pitch he'd like to steal?: "I really like Bud Norris' slider. He's got a good slider. I'd like to be able to throw that type of good, sharp slider. And I think [Daniel] Minor has a nice 12-6 curveball that he flips in for strikes constantly. Even in hitter's counts, he'll go to it and it's just right down the middle every time and just freezes them up and he'll just go to it anytime. He's an impressive pitcher. He's good."
Which Astros hitter would he least like to face?: "I think Rio because first, he's a lefty, so that's an automatic disadvantage on righty vs. left, and he actually hit me during my live bullpens before I started pitching in the GCL. He's just seen me a lot and he's got such good hands and he can go away with the ball to the opposite field and he can turn a ball if he needs to and has a pretty good eye. Those guys with good hands that have good eyes that don't chase that much out of the zone are tough guys to pitch against."
Who on the team makes him laugh?: "When I was at the GCL, Brett [Phillips]. Brett's a clown, in a good way though. He keeps everything light, fresh. He's a great player, great kid, just really true, down to earth, awesome. Very good player, knows how to turn it on when he needs to. Great outfielder, great arm, good speed, good bat. He has this laugh. It's just out of this world how he laughs."
Something that most people don't know about him : "Last year I had a British [literature] class and I not only found out it was my favorite class I had ever taken but I actually enjoyed [Shakespeare's poetry] and epic poems."
What would you do if you couldn't play baseball?: "Go back to school, get a degree in something. I'd love to coach baseball somewhere somehow, just be around the game as long as I can."
A little bit on his father, what he learned from him and how he differs: "My Dad's pretty laid back. Not a lot bothers him. He's a great guy. He's someone to look up to, someone you want to be like. I think I take things a little more seriously than my Dad. I'm really a big competitor on the mound and I'll do anything to win really. I learned a lot from my Dad. Pretty much everything out there is my Dad. I think the big thing would be just his baseball mind, being a little more advanced for my age just because I had a father that played in the big leagues."
What would he say to Astros fans?: "Everyone goes through ups and downs in any organization. Look at the Rays who were in the playoffs the last couple of years. Before that, they were terrible and they really got this influx of young talent to come up through the minor leagues. Even the Pirates, the Nationals ... they weren't very good, [but they've been focusing on] getting young players, getting in talent up the system and [letting] it pay off in the long run. Just be patient. I know it's hard to watch a big league club struggle. Just be patient and be excited about the future because it's a bright one."
The best part of interviewing McCullers, Ruiz and Correa was seeing how close-knit they are, along with their friend Brett Phillips in the GCL. My imagination ran wild as I envisioned the four musketeers coming up through the system together and coming to Houston with an unbroken bond of talent and teamwork.
Thanks for your time Lance. I'm looking forward to seeing you for many years to come, hairy legs and all.