Late last season, Brandon McCarthy took a line drive off his head. Thoughts of him continuing his baseball career were put on hold as he was taken to the hospital and forced to undergo brain surgery to stabilize his body and save his life. The prognosis was guarded at first, but eventually he was out of the proverbial woods and it seemed like he would be able to live a normal life. Even better at this point is that it appears likely that he will be able resume his baseball career in 2013, excellent news after the scary incident that had us all worried about his life. The D’backs decided that the free agent was worth the risk and have agreed to a two year deal worth $15.5 million dollars to have McCarthy hurl the baseball for them two next two seasons. Was that a wise investment by the Diamondbacks or should they just have signed Joe Blanton for $15 million, the price he agreed to with the Angels (for more on Blanton, see his Player Profile)?
For his career McCarthy owns a 4.02 ERA, 1.28 WHIP an a 37-39 record. Those numbers, combined with a 6.15 K/9 and 2.34 K/BB ratio, paint him as about as average a pitcher as there is in the game. However, there’s more to this pitcher than his career long numbers, much more in fact. Over the last two seasons, 43 starts with the Athletics, Brandon has taken his game up a notch. He may have only won two more games than he lost (17-15), but his ERA has been a sparkling 3.29, his WHIP an impressive 1.18, and his K/BB ratio has shot into the stratosphere at 4.00. Not only are those impressive numbers for an AL hurler, they are just flat out strong totals (the ERA is 22nd in baseball, he’s allowed just the 18th most base runners in the game, and his K/BB ratio is 10th among all pitchers who have thrown at least 275 innings). Now it’s making a lot more sense why the D’backs were happy to give him a two year deal for just over 15 million. Alas, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows with McCarthy.
The most obvious issue with Brandon is a lack of health. I’m not talking about his head injury, I’m talking about his body and more specifically his shoulder. He’s altered his mechanics over the years to compensate for his shoulder, but the fact remains that he’s been a starting pitcher since 2007 and only once in that time has he thrown 170 innings. Moreover, only once in that time has he thrown even 115 innings in a season. The guy just doesn’t have a track record of staying healthy, and it doesn’t matter how talented or effective you are if you aren’t on the field. His health is a HUGE concern.
Though his K/BB ratio has been excellent the last two years and speaks to his understanding of how to pitch, it’s all about his control (in each of the past two seasons his BB/9 mark has been under 2.00). He just doesn’t beat himself which is fantastic, but the other side of that coin is that he also isn’t a strikeout arm which does significantly impact his fantasy outlook. The only time that he’s reached 6.50 batters per nine innings in the K department was way back in 2006. For his career that 6.15 K/9 mark would equate to 123 strikeout per 180 innings pitched. Two points. (1) He’s never thrown 180 innings in a season. (2) Even if he did maintain that rate over 180 innings that total of 123 strikeouts is still just seven more than Craig Kimbrel had last season out of the bullpen. It’s a terrible mark for a starter and would have placed McCarthy 84th in the game in ’12. The lack of strikeout may not hinder his effectiveness on the hill, but it’s a significant red flag in the fantasy game.
McCarthy, who famously has become a bit of a sabermetric geek, learned that given his skill set he would be better off inducing ground balls versus allowing fly balls. He therefore attempted to tailor his pitches to induce grounders, and rather amazingly, he’s had a ton of success doing that. Over the first five seasons of his career his fly ball ratio was at least 41.7 percent each season. The last two years that mark has been 32.2 and 35.1 percent. It’s not overly difficult to understand why his performance has turned around the past two years. He’s pitched more to his strength and worked hard at keeping the ball down in the zone.
So where does all of this leave us? When healthy and on the hill the past two years, McCarthy has been a very impressive big league hurler. There are still a handful of issues you need to be aware of before rostering him. (1) He has an exceedingly difficult time staying health. His track record is one that is littered with DL stints. (2) We assume that he will be fully healthy and capable of performing at his 2011-12 levels in 2013. I certainly hope that is the case, but he did suffer a life threatening injury so I’d like to see him have some success on the hill before just blindly expecting a return to his previous levels. (3) He doesn’t strike batters out nearly enough to be a truly dynamic fantasy weapon. (4) Though he now gets to pitch in places like San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, in ballparks that favor pitchers, his home park is not so kind to hurlers. In 2012 his home park in Oakland was 22nd in runs and 23rd in homers according to Park Factors. The park in Arizona was 6th in runs and 6th in homers. The move from the AL to the NL might not be as much of a positive as you initially thought given the more difficult home environment he will be pitching in. I wish McCarthy luck and wouldn’t at all mind if he was on my fantasy team, but I also wouldn’t draft him as an upper echelon arm given the previously noted concerns. For me, he’s 5th starter type in mixed leagues.
By Ray Flowers