Durability can be a difficult thing to prove, but it can be an easier thing to demonstrate. And teams are fond of players they can count on, which is one of the reasons why Nick Markakis got four guaranteed years while the Mariners sold a relatively cheap Michael Saunders. Francisco Liriano has a history of some issues, but he got himself three years after completing a stretch without pitching-related arm injuries. Brandon McCarthy, historically, hasn’t been so dependable. There was a basically annual shoulder problem, and because of that, it’s long been hard to see McCarthy getting himself an extended guarantee. But McCarthy didn’t just match Liriano — McCarthy got himself four years from the Dodgers, and $48 million, after a completely healthy season. The Dodgers, it would seem, believe enough in McCarthy’s health, and because of some of his 2014 indicators, this is a deal that even includes substantial upside.
You’ve read about McCarthy enough, and we’ve written about McCarthy enough, that we probably don’t need to go into great detail again. He’s always been an interesting pitcher, but 2014 saw him reach a new level of intrigue. The Dodgers, it must always be understood, can afford to take some of these risks, on account of the money that funds them, yet this is a deal that would look pretty good on a number of payrolls. If you believe even a little bit in the power of xFIP, there’s more to McCarthy than meets the eye.
For the first time, McCarthy reached 200 innings. For the first time, McCarthy exceeded 25 starts. For the first time, McCarthy’s fastball averaged about 93 miles per hour, versus his previous 90 – 91. Odds are, these things are related. As McCarthy found a training program that works for him, he made himself stronger and more able to withstand the rigors of the long season. With added strength, McCarthy’s velocity picked up. And with added strength, McCarthy kept from wearing down, avoiding previously chronic shoulder weakness. Enough things changed for him that it’s by no means clear McCarthy will just go back to being what he had been as a decent No. 4.
If you look at the surface numbers, McCarthy elevated his strikeouts. You know this story. McCarthy wound up with a mediocre ERA, a pretty good FIP, and an incredible xFIP. Based on runs allowed, he was worth just under two wins. Based on FIP, he was worth about three wins. He’s now projected to be worth about two wins. That’s over just north of 160 innings. This isn’t at all an aggressive projection — McCarthy was worth about two wins in both 2012 and 2013. In those years, he had considerable DL time.
If McCarthy were about a two-win pitcher, this might look like a slight overpay. Nothing extreme. Running through the usual math, plugging in the Steamer projection, calling the cost of a win $7 million, and knocking off half a win a year, you’d get a “deserved” contract of four years and $40 million. A little south of the Dodgers’ total. If you think the cost of a win is $7.5 million, you get up to $43 million. If McCarthy is just himself, and if he misses time and declines, this isn’t going to look like a great deal. Yet it would only really be an issue in Year 4. Conservatively projected, McCarthy isn’t being badly overpaid.
But you have to think about the xFIP. There’s no denying that, historically, pitchers have mostly pitched to their xFIPs. It’s a blunt tool, a too-blunt tool, but it’s also generally more effective than ERA. We know that number fluctuates. We know that, when there’s a high dinger rate, you can count on regression. McCarthy deserves some credit for the increased strikeouts and the increased velocity. You certainly can’t fake increased velocity.
If you put stock in the xFIP, the McCarthy calculations change quick. He just posted an xFIP- of 77, meaning it was 23% better than average. Since 2002, there are 66 pitcher seasons with at least 150 innings and an xFIP- between 75 – 79. In those seasons, per 200 innings, the pitchers have averaged 4.6 WAR, and 5.0 RA9-WAR. These aren’t particularly unfair peers for McCarthy. As much as he was nowhere near his xFIP in Arizona, we saw things even out in New York.
And, encouragingly, between 2002 – 2013, I found 52 pitcher seasons with at least 150 innings and an xFIP- between 70 – 84, with the pitcher also between the ages of 28 – 32. The idea here was to get a decent sample while keeping McCarthy more or less centered. In the following season, the pitchers averaged 3.9 WAR and 3.7 RA9-WAR, and that includes guys who got hurt. Out of the pool, 43 pitchers were worth at least 2 WAR. And 38 were worth at least 3 WAR. These are guys who had similar strikeout, walk, and groundball profiles. It’s a simplistic breakdown, but it’s also a breakdown that’s been proven to work pretty well, and there’s little reason to believe McCarthy’s a statistical weirdo. His career ERA- is 98. His career xFIP- is 96.
Suddenly, you see some major upside. Set that cost of a win at $7 million. Now say McCarthy’s worth 3 WAR in 2015. Plug in inflation and declines, and you get a “deserved” contract of four years and $67 million. Bump up the cost of a win a little bit, and it’s $72 million. And if you project McCarthy for 3.5 WAR, then you’re between $80 – 90 million. This all allows for some regression. This all allows for some time missed due to injury. If McCarthy’s close to as good as his xFIP, he’s better than a $48-million pitcher, and generally speaking, pitcher xFIPs are pretty descriptive.
And so here’s a fun fact for you. Last year, 140 starters threw at least 100 innings. Some MLB-wide ranks in xFIP-:
- Kershaw: 1
- Greinke: 7
- McCarthy: 11
- Ryu: 14
All extreme performances deserve to be regressed, but that’s four starters with an xFIP- no worse than 82. You’d have to believe some silly things to not consider the Dodgers’ starting rotation arguably the very best in the game. It’s a terribly cruel top four, and though neither McCarthy nor Ryu strike fear in hitters in the way that Kershaw does, they did what they did. By xFIP, McCarthy was basically Yu Darvish, and Ryu was basically Jeff Samardzija. Max Scherzer’s xFIP- was 83.
If you believe in Brandon McCarthy’s xFIP and shoulder strength, the Dodgers just inked a pretty good bargain. If you figure he’s likely to return to the DL a handful of times for the old problem he had, he can still be more than worth the money in the innings he manages to throw. And if McCarthy goes back to his old performance, and if he goes back to his old level of durability, the Dodgers are only overpaying here by maybe 20 – 25%. It’s all estimation — it’s all always estimation — but relative to the upside here, the downside is hardly a worry. Think about what you would’ve thought before 2014 happened. Somehow Brandon McCarthy got four guaranteed years. Somehow his years might well be team-friendly.
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.