Special thanks to Brandon McCarthy for taking the time to walk me through his experiences as a pitcher, and providing me with countless insights I never would have discovered researching on my own.
There has been plenty of ink spilt this season over Justin Verlander’s American League MVP candidacy, and he is a shoo-in for the AL Cy Young Award. A large part of the narrative is the 24 wins, but one would assume that all the gushing means he had one of the most dominant pitching seasons of the last decade. However, when controlling for run environment, Dave Cameron notes that the last two AL Cy Young winners, Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez, had better ERA’s relative to league average than Verlander. Moving on to the advanced stats, Verlander did not even lead the league in FIP in 2011. Neither did his nearest competitor for the award, CC Sabathia. It was in fact Brandon McCarthy of the Oakland Athletics.
In 2010, McCarthy was a 26 year-old pitcher with 372.2 Major League innings under his belt toiling away in Oklahoma City, AAA affiliate of the Texas Rangers. He had been cut from the big league club following a rough Spring Training, and was toying with his mechanics and pitch repertoire, all while battling micro stress fractures in his right shoulder. Injuries limited him to 56.1 innings that season, and while the 3.36 ERA looked tidy, a 79.9% strand rate masked a less impressive 4.23 FIP. As a pitcher who is in tune with defense independent statistics and had experienced severe arm injuries four years in a row, McCarthy said “it was at that point that I was going to have to start considering my options outside of baseball.” A year later, he was the American League FIP leader. To figure out this transformation, let’s travel back in time.
The 2005-2009 version of Brandon McCarthy was a pitcher throwing an 89 MPH fastball who mixed in curveballs, change-ups and a few sliders as his off-speed pitches. After displaying excellent control in the minor leagues, he quickly found that big league hitters were a different beast, and began nibbling at the corners when he discovered that he couldn’t overpower batters. His confidence waned as the walks began to mount and a rare shoulder injury continued to plague him.
“A lot of people can be a big league pitcher physically, that’s never a question, it’s just can you do it mentally. For me, when you look at my walk rates in the minors they were super low, it just didn’t translate when I got to the big leagues. My stuff didn’t overpower big league hitters… I wasn’t as comfortable pitching at that level because I knew my margin for error was so much smaller. That created a nibbling pitcher. I lost my confidence, I lost my ability to attack the zone. I don’t think I got worse, I just didn’t believe in myself.”
During a three month lay-off from June through August 2009, McCarthy came to the realization that even if he was healthy, his ceiling was that of a back of the rotation starter constantly fighting for his job.
“It had been building for a while that I was tired of being just a four-seam/change-up/curveball guy and I knew that even if healthy, I knew where my ceiling was even if I could throw 200 innings.” McCarthy said. ” I wasn’t ever near a top of the rotation guy, it was just sort of hang on in the big leagues and be OK. Too many fly balls, not enough strikeouts, control wasn’t there. I wasn’t getting enough contact under my terms.”
Needless to say, it was time for a change. “Towards the end of that year, I started thinking about just really changing everything. I started screwing around with a bit of a two-seamer and a cutter that I threw in maybe two or three games at the end of that season. That was what carried me into making a much bigger overhaul that off-season.”
That off-season, McCarthy looked to Roy Halladay for inspiration. “As stupid as it sounds, I set a goal that I wanted to become Roy Halladay. I wanted to throw what he throws, work in his sequences, because when you watch Roy it seems very easy… it seemed a lot less effortless than what I was doing.”
In Halladay he saw a pitcher with an effortless delivery who got the maximum amount from every pitch, a feeling McCarthy had never experienced before. “My mechanics, and I always felt like this, I felt like I had more in the tank and I could throw harder. I just knew that something was broken in the chain of my delivery and it just wasn’t coming out or it would only come out a pitch at a time. Before, when I would try to throw harder, it would hurt.”
As mentioned above, 2010 was not a breakthrough year for McCarthy as he continued to learn his new pitches, fiddle with his mechanics and develop the confidence he needed to attack hitters and not be afraid of contact. “I spent a lot of that time where I was hurt searching and trying new mechanics… and kind of became a mess for a while.”
The season ended with an outright assignment from the Rangers, which McCarthy refused in order to become a free agent. He suited up for Winter Ball in order to re-build his value and land a Major League contract. It was during Winter Ball that he made the final tweak to his delivery, adjusting his arm angle and the way he rotated his shoulder through his throwing motion.
“It wasn’t really until I went to Winter Ball that I started to make some bigger changes in terms of my arm angle… and really from that point on I’ve been a pretty similar pitcher to what I was this (2011) season in terms of command and ability to kind of do things with certain pitches. That’s sort of when I hit that biggest jump.”
When looking at his release points in 2009, it is clear to see the inconsistency in his motion as the data points occupy a larger horizontal range, and his slider specifically is all over the map. In 2011, the data points are clustered more tightly in a lower location further away from his body. The consistent release point is beneficial in terms of an injury standpoint, and the lower, wider arm angle should create more movement on his pitches. Courtesy of Josh Weinstock, I have included a scatter plot that shows the release points on all his pitches from both 2008-2009, and 2011.
These final changes to his delivery were what allowed him to finally max out his delivery and achieve the effortless result he had been searching for. This is supported by the fact that his new sinker/cutter combo are both over 1 MPH faster than the 2007-09 version of his four-seam fastball. McCarthy explains: “I have much more functionally sound mechanics… Now each pitch I throw I feel like it’s everything I have for that pitch and it repeats. The uptick in velocity didn’t really surprise me – it’s not a big jump – it’s just a functional jump where I can stay at 91 all day if I want.”
Several teams liked what they saw in the new McCarthy, but in the end he signed with the Oakland Athletics for $1 million plus incentives, explaining that it was the best offer financially, and the opportunity to finally play in a pitcher’s park was a draw as well. In Part 2, we will dig deeper in to McCarthy’s 2011 performance, and see how his big changes affected the numbers.