In some ways, this feels like a blog post from ten years ago. The idea template, at least, is the same, but then, we weren’t complete idiots ten years ago. We knew less, but we didn’t know nothing. Brandon McCarthy is a free agent. He looks like a potentially valuable free agent, at least as far as free-agent values go. I’ll explain, starting here: James Shields is also a free agent. He’s one of the high-profile ones, considered just a little below Jon Lester and Max Scherzer. According to our contract crowdsourcing, the audience projects Shields for a five-year contract worth about $90 million, and McCarthy is projected for a three-year contract worth about $36 million. Shields is nearly 33. McCarthy is more newly 31. Shields was extended a qualifying offer.
Here’s what Steamer sees from Shields in the year ahead:
- 19% strikeouts
- 6% walks
- 3.70 FIP
Here’s what Steamer sees from McCarthy in the year ahead:
- 19% strikeouts
- 5% walks
- 3.75 FIP
Much of what there is to say, has been said. You know a lot about how McCarthy’s 2014 went. Even if you don’t know all the details, you recall enough of the basic ideas. Struggled in Arizona, with runs that didn’t match the peripherals. Got picked up by New York and succeeded, with the runs falling more in line with the peripherals. Looking at starting pitchers, McCarthy finished even in ERA- with J.A. Happ. He finished even in FIP- with Lance Lynn. He finished about even in xFIP- with Yu Darvish. That one’s the kicker.
Out of 140 starters with at least 100 innings, McCarthy was 11th in adjusted xFIP, between Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma. Prior to last year’s 77, McCarthy came in at 100 and 102. What that looks like is a weird, random bump. A positive performance fluctuation, if you want to be all dorky about it. When a hitter does something like that, and he’s no longer in his 20s, we’re generally pretty skeptical. We’re a skeptical bunch. But we can treat pitchers differently, because we record pitchers differently. We don’t have a hitter equivalent of measuring a pitcher’s velocity. How hard a pitcher throws is a quickly stabilizing reflection of his ability. Changes are meaningful. According to McCarthy’s player page, between 2013 and 2014, his average fastball got faster by more than two ticks.
Up 2.1 miles per hour, to be precise. There are 152 pitchers who threw at least 25 innings as starters in each of the last two years. McCarthy’s velocity bump was bested only by Tyler Skaggs, who was re-discovering something he used to do. And before Skaggs went down, he was pitching well enough in the American League. Armed with greater strength, McCarthy saw his strikeout rate skyrocket. And while he switched leagues midseason, his strikeouts actually got better. His walks got better. With the Yankees, McCarthy was able to pitch to his numbers, acting as one of baseball’s better pitchers down the stretch.
So there’s a lot in the profile to like, and the improvement is backed up by a change in physical ability. Eno asked McCarthy about this way back in April, and McCarthy talked about a different weight program, with heavier lifting. The idea was to hold up against the grind of the long season, without wearing down, and it’s fair to say McCarthy accomplished his goal:
|2011, 1st half||91.1|
|2011, 2nd half||90.6|
|2012, 1st half||90.6|
|2012, 2nd half||90.9|
|2013, 1st half||91.5|
|2013, 2nd half||90.3|
|2014, 1st half||92.9|
|2014, 2nd half||92.8|
In 2013, McCarthy wasn’t able to lift like he wanted to, which cost him in the later months. This year, not only did he maintain his strength — incredibly, he also maintained his health. We’ve all known McCarthy to have a chronic shoulder problem, a particularly unusual chronic shoulder problem, but, let’s put it this way. In talking about Nelson Cruz the other day, Sam Miller pointed to his entirely clean bill of health in 2014. Here’s a screenshot similar to Miller’s, of McCarthy’s injury log:
Absolutely nothing for 2014. He made it to 200 innings for the first time in his life, and while that doesn’t mean McCarthy is a safe bet to get to 200 innings again, this is at least proof of the possibility. Before this year, you could count on McCarthy eventually requiring a DL stint. It was an annual event, and people would just take it in stride. Now, McCarthy’s made all of his starts, while increasing his arm strength. You wonder if he’s finally found the right training program. A relatively durable Brandon McCarthy would be something totally new, something of considerable value.
McCarthy addressed the injury questions. He addressed velocity questions that no one was asking. And what do we make of his ERA with Arizona? From Brooks Baseball, you can see how McCarthy changed his pitch patterns in New York:
Much was said about his cutter, but a bigger change was throwing more fastballs, and in particular more elevated fastballs. McCarthy was quickly approached by catcher Brian McCann, who had ideas of how they could keep hitters off of McCarthy’s sinker, and he said he used his four-seamer up in the zone to generate a bunch of easy outs. Being able to use the cutter more, as well, made McCarthy all the more unpredictable, and with help from Baseball Savant, you can see changes in location tendencies. Facing righties:
McCarthy moved more inside on righties, and more away against lefties, and while his strikeouts and walks were already good, he dramatically reduced the quality of contact that he allowed. Maybe that was inevitable, given the nature of fielding-independent statistics. Maybe change was necessary. Whatever the case, McCarthy’s xFIP didn’t move more in line with his ERA; his ERA moved more in line with his xFIP. McCarthy the Yankee threw 70% strikes, getting 50% grounders, and with better velocity and a less-predictable mix, there was nothing to critique. He even reached as high as 116 pitches.
To go back to James Shields real quick: there’s no question that Shields has been incredibly durable. A lot of his value is tied up in his being a work horse, and whoever signs him will expect him to throw upwards of 200 innings a season. A year ago, you’d never expect Brandon McCarthy to reach 200 innings in one season. But now here we are in a new reality, a reality in which McCarthy throws harder and throws more often. He just had a year in which he didn’t get hurt, and it makes you wonder how many more of those he can have, because on a per-inning basis, he doesn’t seem much worse than Shields, if he’s even worse at all. The most positive evaluation possible would say that McCarthy’s one of the best starting pitchers in the league, and while, again, that’s too positive, it also has some basis in fact. There’s an argument, and 2014 dramatically lifted McCarthy’s future projection.
It sounds like the Yankees want to re-sign him. Maybe that’ll happen. Maybe you’re worried that he wouldn’t take what he learned in New York with him elsewhere, but by now that’s all internalized. He knows what he was doing with his pitches, and he knows where he was putting them, so that’s just a part of his identity now, no matter the catcher. So it comes down to this: to what extent do you believe in Brandon McCarthy’s 2014? His history and his ERA will cost him some millions of dollars, but at the same time, that’s precisely how you can go about finding a good free-agent deal.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.