Scouting The Free Agent Market: Brandon McCarthy

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

For the umpteenth consecutive offseason, the Yankees need to add a starter to their rotation this winter, preferably two. Ivan Nova (elbow) won’t be back until at least May while CC Sabathia (knee), Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), and Michael Pineda (shoulder) will all carry injury concerns heading into 2015. Shane Greene and David Phelps are nice pitchers I would rather see penciled in as the sixth and seventh starters rather than numbers four and five.

Earlier this month we heard the Yankees were planning to “aggressively” pursue re-signing right-hander Brandon McCarthy, which makes total sense. He was excellent during his brief time in pinstripes, pitching to a 2.89 ERA (3.22 FIP) in 14 starts and 90.1 innings, and usually that’s enough to get a guy a new contract. McCarthy is arguably the fourth best free agent starter on the market behind Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields though, making him a popular second tier target. Stint in pinstripes aside, is McCarthy actually worth pursuing? Let’s look.

A Quick Note About Performance

During his year and a half with the Diamondbacks, McCarthy was bad. Just … bad. I don’t know how else to put it. He made 40 starts and threw 244.2 innings with Arizona and had a 4.75 ERA and 3.78 FIP. That’s bad. If you allow more than one run for every two innings pitched over that many innings, it’s bad. You really have to squint your eyes and adore the peripherals to ignore the fact that lots of runs were being scored against McCarthy. That is the pitcher’s job at the end the day. Keep runs off the board. Style points don’t matter.

McCarthy reinvented himself as a sinker/cutter pitcher with the Athletics way back in the day — this story has already been told a million times, no need to repeat it here — and he had a 3.29 ERA and 3.22 FIP in 43 starts and 281.2 innings with Oakland during the 2011-12 seasons. That looks an awful lot like the numbers he put during his short time in the Bronx, no? The same FIP and the ERA difference could be sample size noise or the result of the decline in offense around baseball. Or both!

I think it’s important to note here that, within the last few years, a lot of players joined the D’Backs and got worse and/or left the D’Backs and got better. That’s part of the reason GM Kevin Towers was fired in September. Players who are/were thriving elsewhere stunk with Arizona. McCarthy falls into that group. So does Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Martin Prado, Justin Upton, Trevor Bauer, and a bunch of others. It’s happened often enough that it has to be something more than a coincidence at this point.

Change In Stuff & Pitch Selection

Now let’s get down to the nuts and bolts. As you know, McCarthy said the D’Backs did not let him throw his cutter during his time there but the Yankees, who are as cutter-happy as any organization in baseball, allowed him to throw it. It’s easy to attribute his success in New York to the return of his cutter, except that’s not really what happened. Here’s a table from our Season Review post:

% Cutters % Sinkers % Curves % Four-Seamers
2011-12 with A’s 41.3% 36.1% 18.9% 3.7%
2013-14 with D’Backs 23.6% 49.2% 20.1% 7.1%
2014 with Yankees 18.8% 36.0% 20.9% 24.2%

McCarthy only threw 10.3% cutters with the D’Backs before the trade this past season, so yes, he did technically throw more cutters with the Yankees this year. But compared to last season (34.6%) he actually threw fewer. He did throw more sinkers with Arizona, which jibes with the alleged “no cutters” policy, and his curveball usage has remained approximately the same over the years.

It’s possible there is some PitchFX weirdness going on here, particularly during McCarthy’s time with the Yankees. Maybe the system misclassified some cutters as four-seamers — cutters are usually misclassified as sliders and vice versa — and boy, that would explain a lot. Maybe McCarthy actually did throw more straight four-seam fastballs in New York. That could have led to his increased effectiveness as well. I’ve always thought having multiple fastballs was a good foundation for success despite having zero evidence to support it. Just one of those things I believe.

Anyway, here’s something else from our Season Review post. McCarthy added a frickin’ ton of velocity — across the board, not just the fastball(s) — this past summer:

Brandon McCarthy velocity

That’s not a slight uptick in velocity. McCarthy added 3.2 mph to his average curveball velocity, 2.0 mph to his sinker, and 1.5 mph to his cutter from 2013 to 2014. That’s substantial and who in the world knows if it will last next year. We’ll get into McCarthy’s injury history and offseason workout routine in a bit, but adding roughly two miles an hour to your arsenal across the board at age 31 is not something that happens all that often.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a second to look at the effectiveness of McCarthy’s individual pitches over the years. I’m not going to lump this together by team or whatever, I want see what happened each year because a pitcher’s stuff does change over time. Guys add movement and lose velocity, stuff like that, often unintentionally. It’s unavoidable. The innings build up and the arm can’t do what it once did. Here are the swing-and-miss rates and ground ball rates of McCarthy’s individual pitches over the years (via Brooks Baseball):

CT Whiff% CT GB% SNK Whiff% SNK GB% CB Whiff% CB GB% FB Whiff% FB GB%
2011 12.9% 38.0% 4.0% 53.5% 9.6% 54.5% 5.0% 0.0%
2012 10.2% 35.1% 4.3% 41.4% 9.9% 48.1% 1.9% 40.0%
2013 8.0% 37.7% 4.5% 58.2% 7.9% 54.3% 11.6% 33.3%
2014 8.6% 44.4% 8.4% 59.1% 11.4% 54.5% 14.6% 39.4%
MLB AVG 9.7% 43.0% 5.4% 49.5% 11.1% 48.7% 6.9% 37.9%

That table isn’t as messy as I expected. Phew. It’s best to read each column top to bottom, don’t try reading across each row.

McCarthy had four pitches that were above-average at getting ground balls this past season and three that were above-average at getting swings and misses. That is really, really good. You’ll be quite successful if you can do that. In the past though, only the sinker and curveball were reliably above-average at getting ground balls and McCarthy’s best swing-and-miss pitch was his cutter … until he got to Arizona.

Whiff rates and grounder rates tend to stabilize very quickly, within the first 100-150 pitches of each individual pitch, a level McCarthy has easily cleared the last four years. There’s no sample size issue this year. The improvement in McCarthy’s swing-and-miss and ground ball rates seem to be tied directly to his uptick in velocity. More velocity means more swings and misses, that’s been analyzed and correlated to death. The same is not necessarily true for ground balls overall, but it could be for McCarthy given the movement on his pitches.

This brings us back to where we were before: is McCarthy going to sustain this improved velocity? Normally the answer would be no, a 31-year-old pitcher with McCarthy’s of injury history won’t continue throwing this hard, but there might be other factors in play here, specifically his health. I’ll get into that in a bit, I promise. The other question is can he remain effective even if the velocity isn’t here to stay? I don’t see why not, velocity isn’t everything, but at the end of the day we’re not going to know the answer to either of those questions until he actually gets back on a mound in 2015 and pitches.

The Ugly Injury History

McCarthy’s injury history is scary as hell. It’s almost all shoulder problems too, which are extra scary. McCarthy nearly died after being hit in the head by a line drive in September 2012 — he needed emergency surgery for a epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion, and a skull fracture — but, as serious as that was, it was a fluke injury and he has since made a full recovery. The shoulder problems are chronic.

From 2007-13, McCarthy visited the disabled list at least once each season with some kind of arm injury. Again, most of them shoulder problems. Here’s the list:

  • 2007: Stress fracture in his shoulder, missed 31 days.
  • 2008: Forearm/elbow tightness and inflammation, missed 157 days.
  • 2009: Stress fracture in his shoulder, missed 88 days.
  • 2010: Stress fracture in his shoulder, missed 172 days.
  • 2011: Stress fracture in his shoulder, missed 45 days.
  • 2012: Shoulder soreness/strain, missed 86 days.
  • 2013: Shoulder soreness, missed 63 days.
  • 2014: Healthy!

Like I said, scary. Scary scary scary. But the good news is McCarthy stayed healthy in 2014 — he threw 200 innings on the nose between the Yankees and D’Backs after never throwing more than 170.2 innings in a season — and it has now been three full years since he last suffered a stress fracture in his shoulder. Soreness and strains keep you off the mound just as well, but “stress fracture” just sounds scarier. Maybe I have that backwards and the soreness and strains are the bigger issue. I’m not a doctor, I just play one on a blog.

In an effort to stay healthy this past season, McCarthy changed up his offseason routine last winter and focused on getting stronger. “I spent a lot of time in the off-season working on that, doing everything I could to get to a place where I was as strong as I could be physically and mentally,” he said to Nick Piecoro in Spring Training. “That’s shown up early. I feel like myself again. With that, in games I’m sharper, more focused, and the results kind of follow that. Now it’s just staying in that same place.”

The new offseason routine apparently worked, because McCarthy stayed healthy all season and he came out throwing much harder than ever before. There is a tangible reason behind the improved health and velocity. It’s not like he kept doing what he doing before but suddenly stayed healthy and started throwing harder this past summer. Remember when the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett? Almost all the talk at the time was about how much of an injury risk he was, yet Burnett stayed healthy and has thrown at least 185 innings in each of the last seven years. Injury prone pitchers can suddenly become durable, even after age 30.

Contract Estimates

Let’s defer to people a lot smarter than me for what it might take to sign Mr. McCarthy this winter:

Jon Heyman reported last week that McCarthy is waiting to see what Lester, Scherzer, and Shields get before signing himself. I’m sure he’d sign quickly if a team makes him a nice offer, but waiting to see what those three get isn’t a bad strategy. It’s not like the pitching market will dry up completely once those guys sign, and McCarthy would only make himself that much more valuable by being the best available starter later in the offseason.

Given what we’ve seen early this offseason as well as the last two or three offseasons, I’m guessing the first team to step forward and offer that third guaranteed year will get McCarthy. A deal that long can be scary for a pitcher with his injury history, so the team would either have to be very desperate or very comfortable with his medicals. The Yankees had McCarthy for a few weeks this year and got to see his work ethic and that sort of stuff firsthand. That matters. It doesn’t hurt that they had plenty of time to review his medicals and various routines either.

If the Yankees are serious about avoided long-term contracts this offseason — we’ve already seen reports to the contrary and it’s not even Thanksgiving, so who knows — they’re unlikely to find a better pitcher on a short-term contract that McCarthy. There are major concerns about his injury history and legitimate questions about whether the velocity uptick is a long-term thing, but good luck finding a non-elite pitcher without some kind of question marks. That the Yankees are planning to “aggressively” pursue McCarthy tells me they are comfortable with the medicals, and that’s a necessary step one for bringing him back to New York.

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Heyman: Yankees targeting McCarthy, Capuano, Hammel

Via Jon Heyman: The Yankees are currently focusing on Brandon McCarthy, Chris Capuano, and Jason Hammel as they look to upgrade their rotation heading into next season. Heyman reiterates the club is unlikely to pursue Jon Lester or Max Scherzer.

McCarthy and Capuano were with the Yankees this past season, so we’re all already familiar with them. The 32-year-old Hammel had a 3.47 ERA (3.92 FIP) in 176.1 innings with the Cubs and Athletics in 2014, though he was great in Chicago (2.98 ERA and 3.09 FIP) and not good in Oakland (4.26 ERA and 5.10 FIP). He signed a one-year deal worth $6M with the Cubs last year and is probably looking at a similar deal this winter. Meh.

2014 Season Review: The Best Pitching Trade of the Season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s amazing that despite all their offensive problems in 2014, the Yankees were rather desperate for pitching help at midseason. Ivan Nova (elbow) and CC Sabathia (knee) were lost for the season, and at one point it sure looked like Michael Pineda (shoulder) would be as well. David Phelps was doing an admirable job filling in and Vidal Nuno had his moments, but the Yankees needed more stability. Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda were rocks in the rotation. The rest was a mess.

On July 6th, three and a half weeks before the trade deadline, Brian Cashman pulled the trigger on a straight one-for-one swap with the Diamondbacks that sent Nuno to Arizona for right-hander Brandon McCarthy. The two sides were reportedly talking for weeks before ex-D’Backs GM Kevin Towers decided to sell. The timing worked out well for New York too — two days after the trade and one day before McCarthy’s first start in pinstripes, Tanaka suffered the partially torn elbow ligament that essentially ended his season.

It easy to be skeptical about what McCarthy at the time of the trade. His 5.01 ERA in 109.2 innings with Arizona was a major eyesore, as was his 1.23 HR/9 (20.2 HR/FB%). He had a 4.53 ERA in 135 innings the year before, and his long history of shoulder problems was another red flag — McCarthy visited the DL with a shoulder issue at least once every year from 2008-13. His strikeout rate (7.63 K/9 and 20.2 K%) with the D’Backs was fine and both his walk (1.64 BB/9 and 4.3 BB%) and grounder (55.3%) rates were excellent. The Yankees were hoping to get the 3.82 FIP version of McCarthy, not the 5.01 ERA version.

In true 2014 Yankees form, McCarthy’s very first inning with the team was derailed by shaky infield defense (Mark Teixeira throwing error) that resulted in three unearned runs. The Indians put seven balls in play that inning and two were in the air, both caught for outs. It was a rally built on Teixeira’s error and ground balls with eyes. McCarthy settled down after that and allowed just one more run in the next 5.2 innings. The Yankees eventually won the game in 14 innings. Quite the hectic debut.

McCarthy held the Reds and Rangers to one run in six innings in each of his next two starts before the Rangers touched him up for four runs in six innings. After that, McCarthy allowed just seven runs (four earned) in 27.1 innings across his next four starts. His best start for the Yankees and on the season in general came on August 21st, when he struck out eight in a four-hit shutout against the Astros:

McCarthy, who throughout his career has been a bit homer prone, allowed just three balls to leave the yard in his first nine starts with the Yankees. That little bit of good fortune came to a crashing halt in Toronto on the final day of August, when McCarthy allowed three solo homers in the span of four batters to turn a 3-0 lead into a 3-3 tie in the seventh inning. The Bombers went on to lose the game 4-3. It was not McCarthy’s finest moment. Not at all.

After that little homer episode, McCarthy allowed just four runs in his next three starts before getting clobbered in his final outing of the season (five runs in 5.1 innings against the Orioles), something that was a common theme throughout the rotation. Pineda was the only one not to get lit up in his final start. Anyway, McCarthy’s stint in pinstripes ended with a 2.89 ERA (3.22 FIP) in 90.1 innings spread across 14 starts. His strikeout (8.17 K/9 and 22.2 K%), walk (1.30 BB/9 and 3.5 BB%), and grounder (49.1%) rates were all way better than average. His homer rate (1.00 HR/9 and 12.8 HR/FB%) was in line with his career average (1.04 HR/9 and 10.3 HR/FB%).

Soon after the trade, McCarthy told reporters the D’Backs didn’t allow him to throw his cutter, a key pitch in his arsenal when he transformed himself from a fastball/curveball pitcher to a cutter/sinker pitcher while with the Athletics a few years ago. “[Shelving the cutter] wasn’t something I totally agreed with,” McCarthy told Josh Thomson back in July.

“I feel like myself again. [The D’Backs] didn’t want me throwing it any more. They wanted more sinkers away, but I feel like I need that pitch to be successful,” said McCarthy to John Harper in July. “The Yankees came to me right away and said, ‘We need to bring the cutter back into play.’ They obviously looked back and saw, ‘when he’s good he was throwing cutters. When he’s not, he wasn’t.’ I was glad to hear it because I was going to tell them that anyway. It’s been frustrating because I felt like I’ve been throwing better this season than any other year.”

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Here is McCarthy’s pitch selection over the years, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

% Cutters % Sinkers % Curves % Four-Seamers
2011-12 with A’s 41.3% 36.1% 18.9% 3.7%
2013-14 with D’Backs 23.6% 49.2% 20.1% 7.1%
2014 with Yankees 18.8% 36.0% 20.9% 24.2%

McCarthy threw more cutters in his first two starts with the Yankees (37) than he did in his final eight starts with the D’Backs (36), but overall PitchFX says he threw fewer cutters in New York than he did Arizona.

There are two things going on here. At least I think there are two things going on here. One, McCarthy threw only 10.3% cutters with the D’Backs in 2014 before being traded (34.6% in 2013), so he actually did throw more cutters with the Yankees this year. Two, I think there are some PitchFX classification issues. The data at FanGraphs says he threw only 13.0% four-seamers with 45.6% sinkers and 20.4% cutters while in pinstripes. I think a bunch of those four-seamers are actually misclassified cutters, but I can’t confirm that. If that is the case, his pitch selection in the table above would much more closely resemble his time in Oakland, when he was awesome (3.29 ERA and 3.22 FIP).

McCarthy says he was using the pitch more often with the Yankees but the PitchFX data says otherwise, so I don’t know who to believe. I tend to believe the data at times like there, but there could be classification issues. It happens all the time, particularly with cutters, though they are usually mixed with sliders, with four-seamers. I really don’t know what’s going on here. Maybe McCarthy and the Yankees were just blowing smoke when they said he was throwing more cutters.

Anyway, here’s something neat (via Brooks):

Brandon McCarthy velocity

McCarthy added a ton of velocity this year. Across the board too, even his curveball was harder. His cutter went from 90.7 mph last year to 92.2 mph this year. His sinker went from 91.8 mph to 93.8 mph and his curve went from 79.1 mph to 82.3%. These are really big increases! McCarthy told Nick Piecoro back in Spring Training that he changed his offseason routine in an effort to avoid the DL, which he did in 2014 for basically the first time in his career. The velocity could simply be the result of having a healthy shoulder for the first time in years.

Regardless of what’s going on with the cutters and increased velocity and all that, McCarthy gave the Yankees a big shot in the arm after the trade and was borderline ace-like for 14 starts. It happened. It’s in the books. Worry about how he will perform in the future and if he’ll re-sign with the Yankees another time. There’s an entire winter to do that. For now, I just want to point out that even though both Jon Lester and David Price were traded at the deadline, McCarthy had the most impact of any pitcher traded this summer. It just wasn’t quite enough to get the Yankees back to the postseason.

Free Agent Updates: Lester, Scherzer, Sandoval, Shields, Robertson, Headley, McCarthy

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees officially extended the $15.3M qualifying offer to David Robertson yesterday but declined to make the offer to Hiroki Kuroda. If Robertson signs elsewhere, the Yankees will receive a supplemental first round pick as compensation. Hopefully that pick will be able to pitch high-leverage innings in 2015. Anyway, here are some various free agent updates and rumors, courtesy of George King, Mark Feinsand, Jon Heyman, and Brendan Kuty.

  • The Yankees “have no plans to pursue” big name free agents Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, James Shields, and Pablo Sandoval this winter. There’s been talk the  team would stay away from the top of the free agent market, but this could always be posturing. The Yankees don’t have much to gain by saying they’ll pursue these guys. It only creates more leverage for the players.
  • David Robertson said things are “quiet on the front” when asked if he and the Yankees have had any talks about a new contract. At least six teams already have interest in the right-hander, which is not surprising. Big market contenders like the Tigers, Dodgers, and Nationals all need help in the late innings.
  • The Yankees are focused on re-signing Chase Headley and have already started contract negotiations. That doesn’t mean they’re close to a deal, of course. Headley has said he’s open to returning to New York as long as he isn’t a part-time player. The presence of Alex Rodriguez may complicate things.
  • In addition to Headley, the Yankees also want to re-sign Brandon McCarthy and they plan to “aggressively” engage him in contract talks. There’s no word if the two sides are currently discussing a deal. McCarthy is arguably the fourth best free agent starter behind Lester, Scherzer, and Shields, so he’ll be a popular target this winter.
  • David Huff‘s agent Jim McDowell has spoken to the Yankees about next season and said the “feedback was really positive.” Huff is not a free agent; he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time and is projected to earn only $700k next year. He’s still a non-tender candidate despite the affordable projected salary.

A-Rod reinstated, ten Yankees become free agents

Now that the World Series is over, Alex Rodriguez has officially been reinstated off the restricted list by MLB and the Yankees. He was originally suspended 211 games for his ties to Biogenesis, but it was reduced to 162 games during an appeal. A-Rod would not have been eligible to play in the postseason had the Yankees qualified. He now counts against the team’s 40-man roster.

In other news, a total of 121 players became free agents at 9am ET this morning. Here’s the full list. Ten of those 121 players are Yankees: Chris Capuano, Stephen Drew, Chase Headley, Rich Hill, Derek Jeter, Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, David Robertson, Ichiro Suzuki, and Chris Young. No surprises there at all. Martin Prado, CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Slade Heathcott all have to be activated off the 60-day DL if they haven’t been already. So, after all of that, the Yankees have 35 players on their 40-man roster.