Brandon McCarthy: Tinkering or Regression

Note: We’re thrilled to have Drew Fairservice join the FanGraphs team of writers. He’ll be contributing here on a regular basis, and we think you’ll like him a lot.

In the run-up to the trade deadline, we read countless reports of team X sending scouts to watch player Y’s next start, a standard baseball practice which seems weird because it isn’t as though Jon Lester, David Price, et al are unknown commodities. Why go watch them? What could scouts possibly see in a handful of July starts that might sway any decision to acquire such proven big league talent, especially on a rental basis?

Our projection systems provide a snapshot of the potential gains grabbing such a player delivers between the deadline and the end of the season. Using the available means, we roughly figure the Tigers can expect a couple wins from Price in the regular season over Drew Smyly.

When we post rest-of-season forecasts for players on new teams, it’s a matter of distilling the true talent of a player and then adding the context of their new home. But there can often be impediments to this true talent, roadblocks that could prevent a newly-acquired player from producing for his new team as they expect.

Trained eyes might notice a pitcher consistently failing to get a key pitch to certain spot, or making up quick fixes in an attempt to address these challenges. Perhaps an unreported injury is shortening up a stride or a pitcher is tipping his breaking ball.

Especially in the context of rental players, this is key. As much as hot streaks and slumps are more about randomness and round balls bouncing off round bats, there are dynamic elements that can hinder performance. There are so many moving parts and timing-based elements when hitting or throwing baseballs at the game’s highest level, at some point things are bound to get out of whack.

Sometimes regression doesn’t have time to ride in on its white horse to save the season. Consider Brandon McCarthy, now of the New York Yankees.

As you well know by now, McCarthy’s results were terrible as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. His peripherals looked fine but he was plagued by the long ball. Put the guy in pinstripes and suddenly McCarthy’s a new man!

Except he’s basically the same man, with the same strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground ball rate since moving to the American League. The only difference is the lanky righty’s ability to keep the ball in the park; no mean feat at Yankee Stadium.

Team K% BB% HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB
2014 DBacks 20.0 % 4.3 % 1.23 0.345 66.7 % 55.3 % 20.0 %
2014 Yankees 21.7 % 4.7 % 0.59 0.333 77.4 % 52.6 % 8.7 %

McCarthy credits the Yankees staff for encouraging him to throw his cutter again, a pitch the Diamondbacks wanted him to move away from, according to McCarthy. As a Yankee, he’s thrown more cutters and four-seamers while reducing his sinker & curveball usage.

mccarthy pitch selection

If the Yankees scouts noticed something in his approach and believed they could correct it, then consider that removing a roadblock. The results are definitely promising, and could absolutely be a product of his new approach.

Or it could just be a matter of giving up fewer homers because he was bound to give up fewer homers. As much as the cutter might keep balls off the barrel, there is that nagging fear that this is not better process, just better results.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation for the ages. Did McCarthy get better because he was bound to get better or did he get better because the Yankees helped unlock the efficient pitcher he became in Oakland? It is just this kind of complicated exercise in logic that teams must consider before deciding to make a move with the playoffs in mind. Can we afford to gamble on this player, based on our information?

It works the other way, too. The rapport built between Jon Lester and David Ross helped to bring out the best in the big lefty, but Ross’ skills as a pitch framer certainly didn’t hurt either. Did the A’s account for this boost and how their stable of catchers might affect his performance? Is he outperforming his abilities and how hard might he crash?

For a pitcher of Lester’s quality, probably not much. As much as the extra strikes Ross managed to steal, Lester’s more aggressive approach deserves credit for his great 2014 thus far. As he told me in July, “screw everything else, we’re going to challenge guys.” A concerted effort to pitch differently yields better results – an outcome the A’s can certainly live with.

At this point, the Yankees can only be happy with the quality of McCarthy’s outings and less concerned with how he managed to pull it off. Whether or not they believe the gains he shows in this tiny sample is a conversation for the off-season, when it comes time to consider re-signing Twitter’s favorite pitcher to a multiyear contract.

We can chalk a lot of this early success up to regression and the power of numbers like xFIP, but the without the fundamental changes brought about by an informed scouting and coaching staff, does McCarthy turn it around so quickly? Is regression to the mean simply the variance working itself out, or is it the inevitable result of a player fixing something that was previously broken?

Untangling these connections is complicated, and it’s unlikely that even the Yankees know how much credit to give to the changes implemented for his success in New York. But given their acquisitions over the last month — McCarthy has been joined in New York by Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, Martin Prado, and Chris Capuano — it’s pretty clear that the organization likes to try and buy low on guys whose results don’t line up with their underlying peripherals or their past track record. So far, it’s worked out pretty well for them. Whether it’s tinkering or regression, either way, it looks like a pretty good plan.




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Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF


33 Responses to “Brandon McCarthy: Tinkering or Regression”

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  1. Patrick Bergermann says:

    Drew,

    Couldn’t be happier to see you land with Fangraphs! I’ve been reading your work since the early Ghost Runner on First days and have always enjoyed your writing style. The work that you, Parkes and Stoeten did since the early days helped reignite my passion for baseball and the Blue Jays.

    Keep up the great writing!

    +59 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Gruber's Mullet says:

    I second Patrick’s comments!!

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  3. Dave Cornutt says:

    I’m voting mostly regression. McCarthy’s ERA/xFIP split in Arizona was ridiculous. Changing the pitch mix, and having McCann as his catchter, may be helping some.

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    • BRH says:

      McCann is obviously great. But Miguel Montero’s advanced defensive metrics, including pitch framing, have been very good as well. Even Randy Johnson, who hated everybody, had high praise for Montero when Johnson pitched to him in Montero’s rookie season – and Johnson’s praise was focused on Montero’s facility of learning about hitters’ and pitchers’ tendencies and calling an appropriate game. It isn’t like McCarthy was pitching to Ryan Doumit or Jesus Montero.

      Besides, Francisco Cervelli caught McCarthy in his July 24 start against the Rangers. (6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 5 SO). So I doubt McCann is the answer, although he certainly doesn’t hurt.

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  4. Bluebird in Boulder says:

    I second Gruber’s comments!

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  5. stonepie says:

    i love the moves the yankees made in july and hope they continue making more decisions like this and than blowing through millions on every free agent.

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  6. FeslenR says:

    welcome to FG, Drew!

    anyway, I always say never stray far from your original self…whether be it sports or other. I am a believer in the “new”/old Brandon McCarthy.

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  7. Findlay says:

    FanGROFs for life.

    +20 Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Great to see you land on your feet so quickly, Drew. Awesome waiver-wire pick-up by Fangraphs as well.

    +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Ableem says:

    I’m erect.

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  10. Nick says:

    Congrats Drew, excited to read your work on FG!

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  11. Boston Phan says:

    Congrats on joining Fangraphs, Drew. I wonder how much the higher LOB% with the Yankees is contributing to his better results. Or is his higher LOB% just driven by the lower HR/FB, i.e. the fewer HRs you give up the more runners you will strand? I can’t think of how using different pitches more will change a strand rate, but I suppose it is possible his rising use of the cutter and falling use of the sinker could affect strand rate.

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  12. IL says:

    Great first article !

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  13. Morgan Grant says:

    He was bound to start giving up fewer homers. his real rate is likely somewhere in between where he was at in AZ and now/before. He isn’t going to be much under a 4 era the rest of the season is my prediction. Props to Brandon’s new workout program and trainer. Is this the first season of his career that he could make all his scheduled starts?

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  14. G says:

    Yeah! my daily routine had been thrown off by not getting a Fairservice fix ! Welcome to fangraphs Drew !

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  15. Yunel's Eye Black says:

    Congrats on the new gig Drew

    Supposedly Arizona had McCarthy drop his cutter as it is a difficult pitch to consistently hit batters with

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  16. JM says:

    Yeah, I was a big Getting Blanked fan. This is a great pickup, FG.

    I only followed this site fleetingly, but that might change now.

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  17. JS says:

    Love your writing Drew. Happy to have you land on your feet at FG!

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  18. GettingBlankedFan says:

    Great to see you here Drew! Any chance you can make it onto FG audio. Always thought a Fairservice/Sarris podcast could make a good FG Audio version II

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  19. Seb says:

    Nicely done, FanGraphs. You’ve got yourself some baseball understanding in Fairservice. Good read.

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  20. Durkjurrrr says:

    GROF v Cistulli on Fangraphs audio comparing the general aesthetics of pleasantries, please.

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  21. Steve says:

    It’s simply easier for McCarthy to pitch when he isn’t required to meet his organizational minimum requirement of one hit batter per inning.

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  22. Ryan says:

    Drew, you’re the best.

    Welcome to Fangraphs.

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  23. deadpool says:

    I always wonder how much of regression is tinkering. Like, when we see a statistical phenomenon, we tend to see it as noise. But some of this has to be mechanical/approach flaws popping up, and the regression occurs when they get back to what they were doing right. I’m not saying statistical variance doesn’t play a role, even a major one, but just that this kind of thing has to be more prevalent than we tend to give it credit for.

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  24. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I think Drew will give us some Fairservice.

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  25. toysubmarine says:

    So glad you’ve joined FG – a great site just got better. Also, you misspelled picther.

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  26. purpleJesus says:

    GROF ! Super excited to have you writing for FG man.

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  27. Kris says:

    I think you should’ve recruited the entire roster to write at NotGraphs.

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  28. Jonathon Paquin says:

    Your the BEST writer Drew, glad you ended up here at a quality site.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  29. Dan says:

    Good to see you find a home, Drew.

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