Pitchers Break, But You Still Need Them: Brandon McCarthy

There’s perhaps no non-Dodger player I like in baseball more than Brandon McCarthy, for so many reasons. See that picture at the right? That’s McCarthy’s own Twitter avatar, poking fun at an image of himself shot seconds after taking a liner off the head in one of the scariest moments of the season. Unlike so many players who merely spout scripture or platitudes on social media, McCarthy is one of the most thoughtful, hilarious, active athletes on Twitter – and so is his ex-model wife.

On the field, McCarthy has proven himself to be just as rare, since not only has he not ignored advanced statistics, he’s used them to turn around his career. Once a highly-touted prospect in the White Sox system, McCarthy was never able to make a mark in parts of five seasons with Chicago & Texas, constantly battling shoulder injuries and seemingly doomed to being nothing more than “the guy Texas foolishly traded John Danks for”.

In 2009, sick of being injured and giving up homers – lots of them – McCarthy decided it was time to change his outlook, as this excerpt from a long but absolutely must-read ESPN profile from this March shows:

During his injury-plagued seasons, McCarthy stumbled upon a humor blog run by some Harvard kids who used sabermetrics to lampoon traditional baseball thinking. The site was called FireJoeMorgan.com, a reference to the Hall of Fame second baseman and then-ESPN analyst who famously denounced advanced metrics. The website’s message immediately struck a chord. “To this day,” says McCarthy, “I still think it’s the greatest thing that’s ever been put on the Internet.”

McCarthy also bookmarked sites like Lone Star Ball, a Rangers fan site heavy on sabermetrics, and FanGraphs, an instant favorite. He learned about FIP, or fielding independent pitching, a statistical aggregate that combines what a pitcher can control (homers, walks, strikeouts), ignores what he can’t (luck, defense) and is a truer barometer than ERA. He also learned about BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, a stat that indicates whether a pitcher has been especially lucky (under .300) or unlucky (over .300). He learned about WAR, or wins above replacement, the all-inclusive, apples-to-apples metric that tells how valuable a player is to his team. He learned about ground ball rates, strikeout-to-walk ratios and more.

But while his new approach, mainly revolving around incorporating a two-seam fastball, showed signs of improvement in late 2009, it wasn’t an immediate turnaround. The next year, injured once again, he never appeared in the bigs and got into only 11 games for Texas’ Triple-A team while considering quitting the sport entirely. However, thanks to mechanical changes made by a minor-league pitching coach aimed at reducing stress on his shoulder, McCarthy – after signing a one-year deal with Oakland – ended up leading the entire American League with a 2.16 FIP in 2011, striking out nearly five times as many as he walked.

So am I interested in a pitcher who’s acutely aware of sabermetrics, has used it to turn himself into an excellent pitcher, and is hilarious on Twitter to boot? You’re damned right I am. Over the last two seasons, McCarthy is 15th in FIP among all pitchers with 250 innings, and that puts him ahead of guys like Gio Gonzalez, Jered Weaver, James Shields, Chris Sale, & Johnny Cueto. It’s undeniably impressive. But if you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, well, here it is: this series is titled “Pitchers Break,” and that applies to McCarthy more than just about any other pitcher in the game. Over his entire career, he’s yet to make it through a single season┬áhealthy.

For years, that usually meant right arm injuries. McCarthy missed time in 2007 (41 days), 2008 (146 days), 2009 (99 days), 2010 (180 days), 2011 (45 days), and 2012 (86 days) with arm trouble, almost all to his shoulder. But all of that pales in comparison to the Erick Aybar line drive he took to the head on September 5 of this past season, a terrifying incident which required brain surgery and ended his season. (Though he did resume throwing in late September and may have been available later in the playoffs had the A’s not been knocked out early.)

The combination of solid recent performance and lengthy injury history makes pinning a dollar value on McCarthy difficult. An article from Friday in the San Francisco Chronicle states both that McCarthy “prefers to return to Oakland” and that he’s already drawing interest from the Cubs, White Sox, Blue Jays, & others, and so that doesn’t serve to clear things up much. Over at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron suggests that a 2/$20m deal may be in order, and perhaps that makes sense, given that Jake Peavy, another talented pitcher with a litany of injuries but who at least made it through 2012, just collected 2/$29m from Chicago last week.

I’m not sure if the Dodgers have any interest, and given his injury woes, perhaps they wouldn’t. He’d be an intriguing gamble, however. While he’s certainly not Zack Greinke, he’s an obvious upgrade on the Chris Capuano / Josh Beckett / Aaron Harang crew when healthy, and when he’s not, the Dodgers have the rotation depth to withstand it. Besides, there’s this, from the same ESPN profile…

Brandon McCarthy┬áspent the first decade of his life in Southern California. As such, he was an Orel Hershiser fan. If Pat McCarthy took his son to Chavez Ravine to watch the Dodgers star, the boy would proceed to recite a litany of Hershiser stats. But if he saw an anonymous arm like Jim Neidlinger, who started 12 games for the Dodgers in 1990, a disappointed Brandon would look at his father and ask, “Who?”

Twitter-happy, saber-inclined, a quality (when available) pitcher and a childhood Dodger fan? That’s tough to resist.