A Brandon McCarthy Thought Experiment

You’re familiar with the term “contract year” because there exists a belief that some players perform better the season before they hit free agency. Playing for a new contract allegedly serves as a motivator. Obviously, pre-free-agency performance matters, and the most recent performance matters the most. A player should want to go into free agency on a high note. A player should really try to avoid going into free agency on a low note. For like a whole bunch of reasons actually.

One guy who’s going into free agency on a low note is Jose Valverde. Just one year ago — just one year ago! — Valverde converted all 49 of his save opportunities and ran a near-2 ERA. He blew his very first save opportunity of 2012. His 2012 season wasn’t a disaster, but it was in the playoffs, when he allowed nine runs in four games. Teams are now going to be understandably nervous about Jose Valverde’s future prospects. Another guy who’s going into free agency on a low note is Brandon McCarthy. Doctors recently had to cut into his head.

On talent, the best free-agent starting pitcher available is Zack Greinke, and there’s not a lot of question about that. He’s the only (borderline) ace, but behind him there’s an appealing second tier, ranging from, I don’t know, Hiroki Kuroda to Shaun Marcum. Anibal Sanchez is going to get paid. Kyle Lohse is going to get paid, and on and on. Brandon McCarthy is going to get paid, too, and one wonders by whom, and for how much.

The part we know is that Brandon McCarthy has been good. He was a little less good in 2012 than he was in 2011, but we’re all smart enough not to worry about single seasons. Over the last two years — after McCarthy changed himself as a pitcher — he threw 30 more innings than Josh Johnson. He posted exactly the same ERA as Josh Johnson. He posted exactly the same FIP as Josh Johnson. He posted an xFIP three-hundredths of a point higher than Josh Johnson’s. In terms of performance, Brandon McCarthy has had a lot in common with Josh Johnson. Doug Fister, too, and other guys. The Johnson comp is just the freakiest.

So on performance, McCarthy is worth $X million as a free agent. The other part we know is that the last time Brandon McCarthy pitched off a mound in a game, he sustained a traumatic brain injury. He suffered a concussion, and he underwent surgery to relieve intracranial pressure caused by bleeding. Surgeons had to drill through Brandon McCarthy’s skull. He’s recovered, and just the other day he was cleared to resume all baseball activities. But still, between his most recent appearance and his becoming a free agent, Brandon McCarthy had brain surgery.

What I’m most curious about is what that means for McCarthy’s market. McCarthy didn’t undergo season-ending surgery on his shoulder, or his elbow, or his hip, or even his back. This wasn’t a usual pitching injury that he had, and the overwhelming odds are that McCarthy will be just fine on the other end. I certainly don’t intend to dismiss the McCarthy incident as insignificant, but it seems to me it probably shouldn’t color one’s evaluation of him as a starting pitcher. What happened to him isn’t exactly chronic. McCarthy isn’t unusually prone to getting hit in the head by line drives. It happened, and it should be completely behind him.

But then, teams can’t just ignore what happened. Can they? There was a concussion. Some players have trouble coming back from concussions and performing normally. And McCarthy underwent brain surgery. Brain surgery has “brain” right in it and the brain’s kind of a big deal for athletes and regular people and regular animals. Then there are potential psychological consequences, one might imagine. McCarthy got severely injured doing his job, and it’s not inconceivable that that could affect how he does his job. It isn’t likely, and I’m guessing McCarthy would deny it, but it isn’t not a consideration.

McCarthy already has a red flag, owing to his chronic shoulder issues. Teams already knew that about him and everyone’s getting a better idea of what it means and how it can be managed. The shoulder thing is just part of the Brandon McCarthy equation, and it’s somewhat well understood. The head injury is also now part of the equation, and it’s less understood, even though it seems like it shouldn’t really matter at all.

We probably won’t be able to learn much from the contract that McCarthy ends up signing, because he represents a sample size of one. This is a thought experiment because it’s not something we’ll ever be able to observe in real life. Say there are 100 Brandon McCarthys. Of those, 50 are clones of the current Brandon McCarthy. The other 50 are clones of the current Brandon McCarthy, but without the head injury. The line drive just missed, and McCarthy kept on pitching through the end of the season. We’ll refer to the first group as Group A, and to the second group as Group B. On average, Group B signs a free-agent contract worth $X million. On average, Group A signs a free-agent contract worth $Y million. Is $Y million equal to $X million? If not, what is the difference? How much lower is Y than X?

That’s what I most want to know, and that’s what I never will know, but I’m curious to see what some of you guys think. If you’re a GM, and you’re choosing between two identical free-agent pitchers, one of whom sustained a season-ending head injury, all else being equal you’ll prefer the guy who didn’t have the head injury. Of course; that’s just one fewer question mark. But what is the value of that question mark? Is it a strong preference, or a weak preference? You’ll always take the guy without the head injury every single time, but what if he costs $100,000 more?

Now I’m just repeating the question in different ways. Dave Cameron identified McCarthy as a potential good free-agent value. McCarthy is going to get through all his usual offseason workouts. Interested teams will all very thoroughly review his medicals. McCarthy was recently bleeding in his brain. This year’s pool of free agents is just overflowing with players of unusual interest.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

28 Responses to “A Brandon McCarthy Thought Experiment”

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  1. Eyebrows says:

    “A Brandon McCarthy Thought Experiment”

    I am disappointed this isn’t about your experiment to control his thoughts subliminally through twitter messages.

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  2. Jimmy Jazz says:

    If McCarthy reads this, you just negated weeks of subliminal twitter messages :(

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  3. BMcCarthy32 says:

    Seattle Mariners

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  4. Kyle says:

    I’ll bite. Considering McCarthy is totally healthy and his medicals check out, as an imaginary GM, I myself would not be all that worried about the brain injury and the surgery and whatnot, but I would perhaps have it in mind during negotiations. Or I would just be a dick and use it as leverage. Let’s say I’d offer… 1 million less per year? So instead of 2/20 or 3/30 I’d offer 2/18 or 3/27. Is that too much? Not enough? I don’t know.

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  5. Gerard says:

    In a weird way, I would offer slightly more because the brain injury rested his shoulder. If it had been an injury that he was able to play through, you run the risk of it forcing him to change his mechanics and put extra strain somewhere else, so non-arm injuries to pitcher that they can’t play through seem okay to me. That being said, I’d make him go through a lot more thorough of a physical to get that extra money, in case his vision or balance is affected.

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  6. Nick says:

    Since hopefully Brandon is reading this: please stay with the A’s!

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  7. slackerjack says:

    I’m thinking a 1-year deal with a few vesting options is best for everyone. If he can throw 150 IP next year, then you have to figure there were no lasting effects from his head injury. And that his shoulder is reasonably sound.

    Something like 5 MM + a pair of 10 MM vesting options for 2014 and 2015?

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  8. BurleighGrimes says:

    If I was a GM, I would hope to get McCarthy for a slight discount but would happily sign him to what I would’ve given him before the head trauma as long as his medicals checked out.

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  9. Chris K says:

    Kuroda signed for 15MM 1year. Guthrie got 3/27? Was it? Anyway I tell him this is a 1yr deal 12mil. I’ll let him prove he’s good to go on the field. My team Brewers. I let him know he can expect an extension with a met expectation by AS Break. There’s no need to reduce his value. He’s better than Lohse,Marcum. If he plays well I go long term on him. If he fails We gambled. It was 1year. Of what’s out there not costing 15+mil/yr he had the best potential to pitch above value on contract with the expectation not to.

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  10. Patrick says:

    So how did the existence of Group A alter the outcome of the A’s season? That probably accounts for some of the difference between X and Y.

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  11. CamraMaan says:

    The A’s would probably try to get him for a discount, and seeing that I’m one of little faith in the A’s repeating next year, it would be hard to believe Mcarthy wouldn’t be traded by the deadline (as per normal A’s fashion).

    If I were a GM, however, and this was my negotiation and I wanted to fill a hole in the rotation, I would offer a nice 1-yr contract with a $5M base salary, but with performance bonuses that could raise the deal up to about $12M. And if a certain amount of innings are reached, then a vesting team-option would come into affect for a guaranteed $12M the following year.

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    • MikeS says:

      I was thinking the same. He gets a one year deal with incentives and a team option that can vest if he stays reasonably healthy and pitches not horribly.

      Without the injury, he probably gets 3/30. A little more than Guthrie. Sure, he is a lot better but he has made more than 20 starts twice in his life and never made more than 25.

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  12. Spencer says:

    There is a chance that his head injury could have triggered some sort of super neuro-enhancer (a la Rookie of the Year) and he could be an even better pitcher using expert sequencing and superfluous veteran savvy and wit to induce weak contact with relatively similar physical ability.

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  13. hbeltre says:

    Josh Johnson offers more projection; being ace type guy if health is OK. Pairing with Guthrie/Arroyo kind of overpay helps building case for McCarthy, given he has more talent than both. I think he is in the same league of Marcum, a little ahead of Lohse. Before injury he was a safe 3yr/35-45M. The injury just decrease years granted. I would go with 1yr 6M base salary, plus up to 6-7M in IP/starts bonuses, plus automatic option of 15M, if milestones are reached. If all is fine, you can always renegotiate and extend for extra years.

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  14. kiss my GO NATS says:

    If i am the royals I try to sign him for 1 year with a base of $8 million and another $6 to $7 million in incentives.

    Antone else I go $6 million with another $6 -$7 million in incentives.

    Royals need him more, but he probably would need extra to pitch there.

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