Going into the 2011 season, Brandon McCarthy was rarely mentioned in media coverage of the Oakland Athletics. Most outlets (if any, that is, for this small market team) talked of the second coming of Oakland’s “Big Three” pitchers—Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill. To top if off, McCarthy signed an incentive-filled contract with the A’s in mid-December while the team was also negotiating a contract with its targeted No. 5 imported starter, Hisashi Iwakuma, from Japan.
With the starting five looking complete, it was unlikely McCarthy would have an impact during the season, especially with his injury record. Things have gone McCarthy’s way, however; he won the No. 5 spot out of spring training (the Iwakuma talks ultimately went nowhere) and he has pitched quite well early in the season. This success comes from having a completely different approach to pitching.
Inan article in the San Francisco Chronicle, McCarthy describes his new pitching approach:
“I was a four-seam guy without a plus fastball,” McCarthy said. “I had a big curveball and a four-seam fastball, not a great combo in the major leagues. I kind of had to adjust.”
Instead of trying to blow past hitters with his fastball, McCarthy wants to be more of a crafty pitcher, relying on weak contact instead of swinging strikes. McCarthy also mentions adding a sinker (two-seam fastball) and a cutter to his arsenal of pitches, suggesting he may rely on the Oakland infield behind him that ranked as one of the best defensive groups in 2010.
Another reason for McCarthy’s less-than-average track record has been his fondness for the disabled list; his shoulder has been the main culprit. From Corey Dawkin’s Baseball Injury Tool website, his shoulder has caused him to miss 226 days since 2007. To address this, McCarthy lowered his shoulder position during release to help relieve stress on his joint.
McCarthy is a lanky 6-foot-7, which is one reason he thought he simply could throw high fastballs and get away with that as a young pitcher. To hitters, he said, it looks like the ball is coming out of the lights when a pitcher is that tall.
After just three starts, it’s far too early to tell whether these changes will have a long-term benefit on McCarthy’s career. The changes in his pitching approach seem real, however, and so far it’s been working for Oakland’s least known starter.
Batted ball outcome
Below are the lines of McCarthy’s three starts so far for the A’s.
Date Opp IP H ER K BB FB GB LD 4/5 @TOR 8.0 8 4 2 1 9 14 7 4/10 @MIN 7.1 9 2 5 0 6 12 5 4/15 DET 6.2 6 0 7 1 3 8 7
Comparing these three starts to his past performances, there’s one notable difference in the batted balls he’s allowed. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball data, he’s averaged a GB/FB rate of 0.82 during his time with the White Sox and Rangers. So far this year, the ratio has climbed to 1.89. McCarthy has essentially become a groundball pitcher almost overnight.
His opponents’ batting average on balls in play so far has been .319, suggesting hitters aren’t exactly getting robbed by Oakland’s defense. He’s also allowed line drives 26.8 percent of the time, an increase from previous career numbers.
His 5.78 K/9 rate isn’t too far off his career average of 6.04. Known for his excellent control as a top White Sox prospect, McCarthy has shown off a 0.82 BB/9 rate. From this perspective, it looks like any change in pitch repertoire (and it’s still possible this small sample size of three consecutive starts is irregular and does not showcase his current true talent) has made a big difference in batted ball outcome, not necessarily his ability to throw strikes.
A look at his arsenal
A look at PITCHf/x should give us a clue as to whether the stuff he’s thrown has changed. First off, the lowered shoulder position:
The 2011 release point of pitches (the red points) is clearly clustering in a different area from the 2009 ones (the blue points). On average, the new release is almost a foot lower, and a few inches closer to third base. The new angle is no joke:
I tried my best to reclassify the pitches I thought were obviously wrong, but I’m sure I missed a bunch. In 2009, MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM) tended to classify a slider and curve, but I think it’s the same pitch. In any event, in the above plots I placed the 2009 graphs next to their 2011 compadres. So far this season, McCarthy has mainly relied on a sinker fastball, his four-seam on occasion and a slider/curve. As far as I can tell, he has not used his change-up this season. MLBAM also classifies a cutter (or it could be misclassified), which is mentioned in the article as added pitch he’s learned. Fangraphs’ BIS data also says he’s thrown the cutter this year.
For his new sinker, the pitch tends to tail toward righthanders more so than his fastballs in the past. MLBAM still classifies a lot of his fastballs as four-seamers, but based on the difference in spin angle and horizontal movement, it looks like two separate clusters of pitches. And so far, of the 34 groundballs McCarthy has induced, 22 have come from his prototypical sinker.
Based on movement, difference in spin and batted ball outcomes, I think we are seeing a shift in fastball types from McCarthy (this is my best inference after wrestling with myself that I haven’t made any silly mistakes). Another noticeable difference in his fastball is the almost five-inch difference in vertical movement.
There are plenty of times you hear—at the beginning of the season—that a pitcher has worked to refine and add to his collection of pitches. In this case, McCarthy has really done so by adding a sinker that allows him to get more ground balls and he’s become less reliant on his four-seamer.
This new approach to pitching has treated McCarthy quite well. But is it sustainable for the rest of the season? He’s been able to carry a 2.06 FIP. However, Fangraphs expects him to give up a few more runs, according to his xFIP (an expected FIP that assumes a 10.5 percent homer-flyball rate) of 3.02. McCarthy is also sporting a 16.7 percent infield fly ball rate, meaning about 65 percent of allowed fly balls haven’t even left the infield. Talk about easy outs.
ZiPS also expects him to pitch only 97 innings. If the new shoulder position is all he needed to stay off the disabled list, we should expect more innings out of him. His sinker should also develop with more trial and error as the season goes along. Any real production from McCarthy will give a real boost to Oakland’s hopes of stealing the AL West from the Rangers.
References & Resources
PITCHf/x data comes from Joe Lefkowitz’s tool, which is sourced directly from MLBAM’s database. I also used Fangraphs and Corey Dawkins’ baseball injury database for other stats.
As a note, I mentioned this is my first time reclassifying pitches that I saw that were obviously misclassified. It’s still a work in progress, so any suggestions on what to look for would be beneficial.