Padres Triple-A Pitching Coach Mike McCarthy Is Well Educated in Analytics

Mike McCarthy has followed a well-educated path in his pursuit of a big-league position. Currently the pitching coach for the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas, the 34-year-old Walnut Creek, California native earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Cal State Bakersfield while playing in the Boston Red Sox system, and he followed that up by earning an MBA, with an emphasis in global management, from the University of Phoenix. And he’s not done learning. Along with instructing pitchers in the San Diego Padres’ system, McCarthy is working toward a Master’s Degree in Sports and Health Science.

His educational pursuits have every bit as robust in the pitching realm. Ever since being introduced to analytical concepts as a Double-A hurler, McCarthy has strove to learn as much as he can. To say he’s made great strides in that area would be an understatement; McCarthy is one of the most forward-thinking pitching coaches in professional baseball.

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David Laurila: You’re big into pitching analytics. When did that start?

Mike McCarthy: “One of the moments I remember, one of the most distinct, is Brian Bannister coming to Portland. I believe that was in 2015. I was throwing a bullpen, and I asked Brian, ‘Why does Justin Haley get so many swings-and-misses on his fastball?’ I told him it seemed like an invisi-ball, and none of us could figure it out. He said, ‘We’re learning about this thing called spin rate, and his is really high. ‘I was like, ‘What the heck is that?’

“There was a saying that Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman and Drake Britton were all using. They called it ‘elevate and celebrate.’ While I was throwing fastballs down and away, those guys were throwing fastballs up and getting swings-and-misses. That was kind of going against the grain at the time, and it turns out they all had high-carry fastballs. We just didn’t know what it meant.

“That was the first time I really started to ponder the idea, ‘What are we missing? What don’t we know yet?’ Since that time, baseball has obviously delved into the technology and analytics, and that’s something I’ve enjoyed using as a part of the way I approach coaching.”

Laurila: When did really start to dive in to analytics?

McCarthy: “At that time, everything was held pretty close to the chest. TrackMan was version one — the units were just in their infancy of everyone understanding them — so I didn’t do much then. But when I got done playing, I interviewed with the Dodgers. I went down to their spring training facility where they were doing instructs, and Gabe Kapler asked me if I’d ever use a Rapsodo before. I didn’t know what he was talking about. We walk over and I see the video guy holding an iPad while the pitcher is throwing a bullpen. There’s this black bird box-looking thing back behind the catcher. I was thinking, ‘What in the world is that?’

“This was in 2017, and I realized that I had a lot to learn. I realized that there is a lot of information that can be applied, the same way it works in sales, marketing, or anything else. Information can help us make better decisions. That doesn’t mean it makes decisions for us, but it does mean that you’re more informed in making those decisions.”

Laurila: You didn’t get hired by the Dodgers, correct?

McCarthy: I did not. Jeremy Zoll went over [from the Dodgers] to the Twins, and he asked me if I was interested in interviewing there. I told him ‘absolutely’ and an opportunity came from that. I went to Triple-A Rochester and was the bullpen coach in 2018 and 2019, and then when [the affiliate] moved to St. Paul, I was the pitching coach in 2020 — that was at the alternate site — and in 2021. Then I came here [to the Padres].”

Laurila: Your knowledge base grew quite a bit in your years with the Twins.

McCarthy: “Absolutely. Guys like Jeremy Zoll, Pete Maki, and Josh Kalk are really forward-thinking people, and they were pushing us to challenge the thinking that we’ve had, to see what else is out there. What are we missing? I remember JZ saying that his philosophy was ‘ready, shoot, aim.’ He felt we would find out a lot more, a lot faster, if we didn’t wait and calculate. If we had a good idea, we should try it. I think that that willingness to be progressive really helped me think about how I wanted to coach players. It was OK to fail. You didn’t have to get it right every single time. We can learn as we go, and make players better in the process.”

Laurila: Can you give an example?

McCarthy: “The first guy I really felt like I helped impact his career was Tyler Duffey. Duff was in this up-and down challenging role in 2018, and one of the things we’d seen was that he had good carry, but it wasn’t elite. And along with the vertical break, he had this really unique breaking ball. We saw in the data that he was throwing it from anywhere from 80 to 89 mph, but most of them were settling in the 82–83 range. Everyone always thinks that curveballs need to be thrown slower, not harder.

“I talked to our analytics group and it seemed like the harder one might be more effective. So I went on TruMedia and dug in on different breaks and movements, and really tried to get an understanding of, ‘What is the big thing we could do for Duffey?’ I realized that it was just throwing the pitch harder.

“I asked Duff, ‘Hey, can you throw this harder more often?’ He said that he could, it just felt a little different in his arm. I said, ‘It’s just like throwing a harder fastball, there’s a little different workflow there, so how about if you slowly start to layer in a few more hard curveballs?’

“We did that, and blended it with pulling back on his two-seam usage to lefties. We used more carry fastballs and curveballs, and he started to dominate lefties, which was the platoon advantage they’d had against us. Duff applied this over the course of the next year, and by the back end of 2019 he turned into one of the better relievers in baseball. He threw some huge innings for the Twins.”

Laurila: Let’s circle back to spin rate. A lot of people now feel that it’s not nearly as big a factor in getting swing-and-miss as we once believed.

McCarthy: “I think that’s very true. We know that spin rate impacts the movement of the ball, but it’s not as extreme as we used to think. Spin efficiency, spin axis, and seam-shifted wake are the three factors really impacting that. Spin efficiency and the spin axis are impacting through Magnus Force, and then you have seam-shifted wake. We realized that spin rate isn’t nearly as impactful as we thought it was at the beginning.”

Laurila: How does seam-shifted wake impact heaters?

McCarthy: “Two-seam movement is significantly impacted by seam-shifted wake. And depending on how the four-seam is thrown… we’re very binary in that regard. We think of two-seams and four-seams only, because that’s what we’ve been taught from the day we started playing baseball. What we’re realizing is that a baseball is a three-dimensional object, and it can be thrown from any angle. We have to look at it just as we do healthcare, the way that we raise our children, or anything else. There’s a uniqueness to every single person.

“Now, through Edgertronic cameras, and with attention to detail, we can see how a player’s hand is interacting with the ball. From there we help him align a baseball to match the hand that they have, and vice versa. We can change a cue [with how] their hand is moving through the ball, or we can change the way the ball is aligned in their hand, and have them throw it the same way. When we get it right, we can create some really unique movements that we’d never known we could create.”

Laurila: Pitchers are very individual.

McCarthy: “Amen.”

Laurila: What can you tell me about vertical approach angle?

McCarthy: “Vertical approach angle is a byproduct of how the body delivers the ball, and then how the ball flight occurs. You have to take the body into account, which is essentially the release height and release side. That’s in combination with extension, which can also [impact] it. Looking at the ball flight, it’s the amount of vertical break it gets as it enters the zone. At the back of that… that’s location.

“It’s all of that combined. The ball flight and location will add up to give you vertical approach angle. And when we create unique vertical approach angles, we can change the way the hitter sees the ball, and we can see the impact it has on what the hitter swings at or doesn’t swing at.

“Say we take the exact same ball flight; we’re a pitching machine releasing it with six feet of extension. If we shoot that same ball and it’s got, say, 16 inches of vertical break, and it’s shot at the bottom of the zone versus the top of the zone, that location alone will change the vertical approach angle into the zone. Now, if we have a player getting, say, 12 inches of vertical break, and his release height is five-and-a-half feet tall — he’s falling in this middle-of-the-road spot — we can help him by just adjusting the location he throws in. Or we can help him with a grip adjustment that allows for better spin efficiency, and maybe now he gets 14 inches of vertical break. With a little bit of improvement in the ball flight, and better location, we can impact that vertical approach angle.”

Laurila: How do you go about determining the specific adjustments an individual pitcher might want to make?

McCarthy: “It’s a huge challenge. There’s a ton of information out there, and we’re only getting more. You have opinions from scouts, you have analysts, R&D groups, front office perspectives, the history of the player — what they’ve experienced or tried in the past. You have what they can do in terms of their movement screen or their body’s range of motion. All of these things are going to lead up to a culmination of, ‘What is the best direction for this player? What is this player capable of?’

“Players are emotional beings, so who they are, what they’ve tried, what their state of mind is… a pitching coach is truly in the game of psychology. As much as we’re adding analysis of biomechanics, data, etc, most importantly we’re finding out what the player is ready to do and what he’s capable of doing. We have to apply the psychological and emotional with the physical, the anatomical. When we add those together is where we start to find out, ‘What is the lowest-hanging fruit for this player to get better in the short term and the long term?’ Very rarely is that linear. That’s oftentimes a bit of a stock market trend-line approach. We know that we’re going to learn more in the long run.

“We talk as an organization about how we have to be comfortable with failing at times. That doesn’t mean that the player has failed in terms of his career. It usually just means that we tried something for two weeks and it didn’t work. Well, OK, what did we learn? From there, we make progress. If we do that over the course of multiple years, that player is going to become the best versions of himself he can be. You’re seeing that even in the big leagues. Guys are adding pitches. Yu Darvish is notorious for a constant state of self improvement. He’s always refining his craft.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts?

McCarthy: “What makes the best players in the world great? I think it’s a balance of, and this goes beyond baseball, there should be an inquisitiveness of the world, a desire to have a constant state of learning, but also a knowledge of self. The ability to balance the growth with the knowledge of self, while always thinking forward about what else is out there, is a great space to be in. The very best players I’ve worked with have been in that that state of balance, knowing who they are and being inquisitive of the world around them. They’re saying, ‘What else can I be doing to get better?’”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Rollie's Mustachemember
3 months ago

McCarthy seems like a guy who you could talk to all day long. Very insightful and thoughtful. Great interview, David.