We created computers in our own image, as hard as it is to believe. The hardware that looks so different from us, in this analogy, is our skin, sinew, and skeleton. The software here are the mental processes that control that hardware. Both are equally important, but the software here is the most interesting, maybe. While we can train to get the most of the hardware that is our bodies, and surgery can repair it, it’s our approach, the software, that we can revise on the run.
Here’s another way of putting it. While relievers and starters both lose velocity at similar rates, it’s starters that age more gracefully. That’s because their software is more complex, and they have more ways to alter it. Now let’s take this to Brandon McCarthy, who has graded out as an above-average major league starter so far (2.4 wins per 180 innings pitched). We can identify at least four different versions of McCarthy’s software. Each revision has taught him more, and has given him more weapons.
Brandon McCarthy 1.0
Over the top four-seamers, curves, and changeups.
McCarthy debuted with the White Sox throwing a 90 mph four-seamer over the top with a good curveball and a changeup that had good velocity gap (13 mph!), but he struggled to get through the lineup repeatedly.
One problem might have been lack of weapons. Back then, “there was nothing that took me into deeper innings,” admitted McCarthy before a game against the Giants this year. “Even as a pitcher coming up hitting, your second or third time up, you can’t do anything about it, but you’re very aware. You’ve seen the pitches, and you can see what the pitcher is doing, and if you were a good enough hitter you could adjust.” In ten out of his twelve appearances that year, he failed to get through the lineup a third time. This is what he looked like in 2009:
Brandon McCarthy 1.1
Over the top four-seamers, sliders, curves and changeups.
Over the next three years, McCarthy struggled through his time with the White Sox and Rangers, and he brought the slider in and out of his repertoire as he tried to find another weapon. The problem? The slider wasn’t any good.
“I never had a good slider,” lamented McCarthy this year. “2009 was like the last time I threw it. It was basically just a different grip and throwing a curveball.” Over his career, McCarthy’s slider has been four ticks slower than an average slider. In related news, it’s gotten half the whiffs of an average slider.
Brandon McCarthy 2.0
Dropped down sinkers, cutters, and curves.
When McCarthy got to Oakland in 2011, it was time to drastically revise. This update included a completely new arm slot.
Arm slot has a dramatic effect on movement. So with a big change in release point, it wasn’t at all surprising to see a large change in movement. His sinker was radically altered by the change.
|Slot||Over the Top||Dropped Down|
More negative movement in Horizontal means more fade
Smaller number in Vertical Movement means more drop
Now he had a better primary weapon, with more sink and fade, that helped him get quick outs. “I had to figure out how to get through the lineup,” McCarthy says of that time.
Brandon McCarthy 3.0
Dropped down four-seamers, sinkers, cutters, and curves.
After a tough debut with the D-backs in 2013 — in which he had some poor luck on balls in play (.320 batting average on balls in play) but also saw his his swinging strike and strikeout rates drop to a new low — McCarthy decided to bring his old four-seamer back. The effect was immediate.
Over the next three seasons, his four-seamer showed an impressive 14% whiff rate. Even in an abbreviated 2016 season, his 12% four-seamer whiff rate was 13th-best in the league (minimum 150 thrown). It may not have worked as well as a primary weapon, but in this reboot, it surprised hitters and led to the best whiff and strikeout rates of his career.
It also helped him improve his velocity. “The whole time, I realized I could have been throwing my fourseamer similarly to my sinker, but then get to the very end and explode,” McCarthy said he realized when he brought the pitch back. “I can get it to do more, have more life in the zone, if I load a bit more.” So there’s a mechanical thing (“a slower build”) and a mental thing (“when it’s time to throw, fucking throw it”).
By staying back “a half-second longer” on the pitch, and throwing with intent, he was able to add almost two ticks to the fastball, pushing a gradual rise in velocity from 90 early in his career to 93 and even 94 in 2014 and 2015.
Brandon McCarthy 4.0
Dropped down high velo four-seamers and sinkers, improved cutter, curves, and changes.
Now we get to the version of McCarthy that we’ll see in tonight’s start. He’s got that 93-94 mph four-seamer for whiffs, a sinker that actually sinks and fades with his current arm slot, that curve he’s always had, and then two more pieces he’s fiddled with recently.
Ever since he ditched the slider, McCarthy has thrown a cutter. But it’s never been as good as it first was, horizontally at least. It only cut that first year, and then started to fizzle and fade with time. “It’s a pitch that I’ve been punished the most on the last few years,” admitted McCarthy.
All it took to figure it out was a few bottles of wine with a friend. They got talking, swapped stories about grips, and were suddenly in the back yard throwing. “That night, I felt something good with it,” said McCarthy of his new grip on the pitch.
He’s now tucking his thumb on his cutter, a bit like Sam Dyson, Blake Treinen, and Max Scherzer do on their fastballs. “My cutter has been way better all year,” said the Dodgers’ righty. “The movement is actually back in the positive. Not worried about getting punished on it.” What he means is that the pitch no longer has arm-side fade, and is finally cutting towards his glove side again.
Here’s a look at the revised cutter in his last start:
Oh and that changeup is back, but instead of babying his arm to get that nice velocity gap (and giving up homers as hitters could pick up the different arm speed), McCarthy learned from former teammate Zack Greinke. “I’m throwing it as hard as I can, and letting the movement do everything,” said McCarthy. “I don’t have Zack’s movement, even though it’s his grip.”
McCarthy threw ten changeups in his last start. You have to go back to 2009 to find a season in which he averaged anywhere close to ten changeups a game. At 89, it’s the hardest it’s ever been. With three inches more fade and three inches more drop than his four-seamer, it’s not the most impressive pitch, but that might not matter. In this version of McCarthy, it’s now his fifth pitch. Here it is in action:
Now the pitcher can change things up game to game as well as within a game. “The first time I faced the D-backs, we really did a lot of four-seamers up in the zone,” McCarthy recounts of a matchup earlier this year. “We made a lot of other pitches, but we got a lot of punchouts on that. Five days later, you go up there again and all of a sudden they are foul balls, because they are looking for it. So okay fuck it, now you get changeups.” He threw nine changeups when he saw the D-backs that second time.
To keep our favorite computers going, we have to make all sorts of updates and revisions. Maybe a Tommy John surgery for the motherboard, a mechanical tweak to one of the usb slots, and plenty of updates to the system software. Pitchers are people, of course, but they have a similar process they undergo to keep the arm humming along.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.