The first seven years of Brandon McCarthy’s career were mostly pretty pedestrian. He accumulated a total of 3.3 WAR in 56 starts, never eclipsing 1.3 WAR in a single campaign. He worked as a starter and out of the bullpen for the White Sox before being moved to Texas in the John Danks deal in 2006. McCarthy struggled with the Rangers, bouncing back and forth between triple-A and the majors and unable to post an ERA or SIERA under four in any of his four years in the organization. Last year, he spent the entire season with the Rangers triple-A ballclub and dealing with shoulder issues, and it would have been quite reasonable to assume that after six mediocre years, he might never make it back to the bigs.
Last offseason, McCarthy signed a $1,000,000 deal with the A’s, and was something of an afterthought as the team’s fourth starter behind Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, and Gio Gonzalez. However, McCarthy has reinvented his game, and in doing so outperformed his more heralded rotation-mates. McCarthy once showed serious potential; he was the White Sox top pitching prospect in 2004, according to Baseball America. So how has he rediscovered the form that caused him to be so highly rated as a prospect and established himself as the most productive starter in a very good rotation?
Though McCarthy’s calling card was his impressive control, for years it escaped him in the majors. McCarthy was actually rated as having the best control in the White Sox minor league system as a promising prospect, but walked more than 8% of batters for each of his first four full seasons. McCarthy’s career 16.2% strikeout rate is slightly below league average, so he doesn’t have the strikeout stuff to make up for his wildness.
Fortunately, McCarthy seems to have realized the offensive value of a base on balls, and with his rediscovered control is finally fulfilling the potential he showed back in 2004. After coming into 2011 with a career 8.8% walk rate, McCarthy has cut his walks to a Halladay-esque 3.8%. In fact, the only pitchers with better walk rates than McCarthy this year are Halladay, Dan Haren, and Josh Tomlin. Though Tomlin doesn’t strike out enough hitters to dominate like Halladay and Haren, McCarthy has enough stuff for his numbers to look more like the two pitchers ahead of him with a combined 11 All-Star appearances than the forgettable Tomlin.
In addition to avoiding the free pass, McCarthy has drastically changed his pitch mix. Before 2011, McCarthy had thrown his fastball at least 60% of the time in each of his previous seasons in the majors. He’d tried to use his slider (12.7% of offerings in 2009, his last major league year) and changeup (11%) to catch hitters off balance, but this year he’s pocketed both pitches (both under 3% of pitches) in favor of his newest weapon, a devastating cut fastball. McCarthy’s throwing his straight fastball only 44.3% of the time this year, instead using his cutter for 31.5% of his pitches, a number that increases to over 40% in two-strike counts. McCarthy’s showing incredible confidence with his new toy, and is using it and his curveball (18.9% of pitches, up from 11.4% in ’09) to mow down hitters in 2011.
McCarthy, like so many other pitchers in the past few years, has used the cutter to great results because it’s truly a multifunctional pitch. Its sharp, late-breaking action has allowed pitchers like Haren and Halladay, and others, to use it as an effective strikeout pitch. However, even when hitters do put it in play, the same late breaking action usually means the ball misses the bat’s sweet spot and instead induces weak contact. McCarthy’s benefited from his cutter in this respect as well, as his 47.1% groundball rate is by far the best of his career.
Though it’s certainly easier said than done, the formula for pitching success is quite simple. Pitchers who limit walks, strike out batters, and keep the ball on the ground when it is put in play have what it takes to be successful in MLB. McCarthy has finally learned how to prevent the base on balls and rediscovered the control that once earned him top prospect status, and along with an update to his arsenal, his new approach has turned him from an afterthought into one of the biggest pitching surprises of the season.