The Brandon McCarthy Saga – Part Two

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. 

When part one ended, we had covered the final changes McCarthy made to his delivery in Winter Ball, and were about to analyze his 2011 season. It’s safe to say that Oakland seems to have been the right choice, as the end result of two years of hard work and frustration was a league-leading 2.86 FIP built on the strength of a 1.32 BB/9 and 0.58 HR/9 – both by far career lows. He also mixed these with a solid 6.49 K/9 and career high 46.7% ground ball rate. The groundball rate can be explained fairly easily by the increased use of sinkers and cutters*, but it’s not often that we see a pitcher cut his walk rate by 2/3 almost overnight. However, these were the stats that McCarthy was chasing going into 2011.

“I CANNOT (emphasis McCarthy’s) stand the “nerd stat” narrative and the disdain for them, especially considering how valuable they can be… They’re accurate barometers of what you’re actually doing… Those are the numbers that I was chasing after. I wanted lower home runs, I wanted lower walks, more ground balls, and to get to the top of that category the first year after the changes is a nice accomplishment.”

The key number when analyzing McCarthy’s walk rate is his O-Swing%. Prior to 2011, McCarthy had an O-Swing% of 23.4% – in 2011 that number jumped to 33.9%. While year to year O-Swing data from BIS does fluctuate due to the human element of it’s collection, and his increase versus league average was not as large as the raw numbers suggest, the point still stands as his O-Swing rate was below average in 2008-2009, and 3.3% above average in 2011. A higher O-Swing% would explain the low home run rate and high ground ball rate, as swings outside the zone generally produce weak contact (Vlad Guerrero excepted). It also helps explain the improved walk rate, as his pitches outside the zone are not being taken for balls. Unfortunately, this is a difficult number to explain, and McCarthy himself was at a bit of a loss.  He did, however, offer a hypothesis: “I think that could be explained by just throwing more strikes. I think before where I wasn’t sharp in the zone, I was either coming over the middle of the plate or missing wildly. Hitters were able to just zone in on one territory… versus now I’m able to command both sides of the plate and throw more strikes, it leads to a little bit less ease in a hitters mind. If there’s going to be a lot of strikes, you get into more of a swing mode. At that point as a pitcher, you can start to play games and expand the zone and probably get a swing.”

Thanks to the FanGraphs heat maps, we can see his new repertoire in action.

Below is his four-seam fastball against RHB in 2009. It is a fairly buckshot pattern with a high percentage of pitches over the heart of the plate.

Below is his cutter (classified as a four-seamer due to the algorithm) against RHB in 2011. As you can see, he is hammering the outside part of the plate and giving nothing on the inside half that a hitter can pull for power. Against LHB, the heat map is essentially a mirror image as he worked the outside half of the plate with his two-seam fastball.

While this all sounds great, there is an elephant in the room. McCarthy pitched half his games in The Coliseum, which in 2011 had home run park factors of 89 for LHB and 80 for RHB. In addition the miniscule walk rate, his success was driven by his ability to halve his HR/9 and cut 3% off his HR/FB rate. However, in 2011 he allowed only one more home run on the road than at home in a nearly identical number of innings. In fact, his FIP was only .16 higher on the road. Whether or not he was pitching in the Bay Area, McCarthy was an elite pitcher, and a shift in attitude can help explain this result. “I’ve come to the thinking that your ballpark is your ballpark. Any time you do what you’re supposed to do… whether that’s through a lower HR/FB rate or better ground ball rate, you’re probably going to keep the ball in the yard. Look at what Halladay does in a much smaller ballpark, he still doesn’t give up home runs. I don’t know that the park benefited me all that much. I know it’s an easy narrative, but I never considered it like I have an easy park to throw in. My approach is the same no matter what stadium I’m in.”

While having confidence in your ability and a strong mental approach against home runs is important, xFIP tends to disagree. It was a little more bearish on McCarthy’s performance at 3.30. However, there are pitchers that have shown the ability to limit their HR/9, and McCarthy again tries to surmise why: “I think everyone is going to give up a certain number of home runs… over the course of the season, and this is just ballparking it, I think you’re allowed 10. These account for over the course of the year where you make the exact pitch you wanted to make in the exact count and the guy just does everything is supposed to do, or someone hits a jam shot in a small park. Anything beyond that is user error. You either picked the wrong pitch in the wrong count or you lost focus. I gave up two home runs against Seattle in my last start and what angered me more than anything was I lost full-on focus for those two pitches, and it was an instant punishment. If you’re not locked in for your full 110-120 pitches, somewhere in there a major league hitter is going to punish you and usually that manifests itself in home runs.

So what’s next for Brandon McCarthy? For starters, this off-season is the first time that he doesn’t have to worry about fighting for his job in Spring Training, and then inserting himself into a promotional picture of the team’s starting rotation. However, that doesn’t mean he is standing still. He is going to follow the same off-season plan as last season, except this time he is going to be working on developing a consistent changeup, again looking to Doc for inspiration. This will give him another weapon against left-handed batters, as his FIP was .65 runs higher against lefties due to a .80 HR/9. This dogged determination to be the best pitcher he can be has already served him well, and I am not surprised to see him adding a change-up, as he told me – “I don’t feel like I was a league leader this year… there are always ways for me to improve as a pitcher”

*McCarthy is also a great example of why it is important to dig deeper into the Pitch F/X data. According to the Gameday classifications, in 2011 McCarthy threw 40% four-seamers, 37% two-seamers and 4% cutters. While McCarthy says that the two-seam number makes sense, he threw 40% cutters, and had completely abandoned his four-seam fastball by the end of April. Even in April, the only situation in which he used his four-seamer was on elevated pitches when he was going for the strikeout. Another thanks to Josh Weinstock for verifying McCarthy’s pitch mix with his classifications and his help with the other Pitch F/X aspects of this article.

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Stellar again… second part as good as the first!