The appeal of Brandon McCarthy

McCarthy will try to forget his times of old as he dons the green and the gold. (Icon/SMI)

Since cruising up through the minor leagues from ’02 to ’05, Brandon McCarthy‘s major league career hasn’t been the storybook picture of success many envisioned. For the past six years McCarthy has battled numerous injuries and frustrating ineffectiveness even when healthy, and this offseason found himself (by choice) on the free agent market where he scooped up an incentive-laden one-million dollar deal. Despite his turbulent career to date, here are a few reasons why McCarthy might finally settle down this season and be productive.

The new environment

The team that signed him this offseason was the Oakland A’s, who I’m sure you know, are a great organization for any pitcher to pitch for. For starters they play in a spacious ballpark that will be a stark contrast to the homer-happy White Sox, Rangers, and various PCL-League stadiums to which he is accustomed. It also should help that Billy Beane‘s newly-targeted “market inefficiency” is defense, which one might call a pitcher’s best friend. Then, throw in the fact that the A’s seem to be able to churn out successful pitchers as if factory-manufactured, and I think it is apparent McCarthy is situated nicely in Oakland.

The one caveat here is his feeble grasp on the fifth spot in the A’s rotation. Common opinion is that McCarthy is the frontrunner for the job, though Rich Harden, Josh Outman, and Bobby Cramer are all talented pitchers with degrees of success in their past. My opinion? With his recent injury, Harden is simply too laughably-unendurable to warrant any sort of starting gig, and, lthough a nice story, Cramer is a longshot to outperform the others this spring. The aptly named Outman is, I feel, the biggest threat to win the rotation spot over McCarthy.

After making his way through the Phillies farm system, Outman was flipped to Oakland in the Joe Blanton deal and proved his worth in 67 major league innings, going 4-1 with a 3.48 ERA, a 7.1 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in 2009. His elbow subsequently succumbed to Tommy John surgery; it is reported he is finally healthy and throwing well. So competition exists for McCarthy, though the his inside track to the final rotation spot, combined with the likelihood that one of the A’s other starters will suffer an injury, makes me confident he will have opportunities to start this season.

His recent performance

McCarthy’s career picture is not pretty, but recent performances offer encouraging signs. In a mere 56 innings in Triple-A last year he impressively limited his walks to 1.8 batters per nine. Granted, it is a small sample and he was 26 years old, I felt it was a good showing for a guy just trying to reappear on the map. McCarthy proceeded to make four starts in winter league ball and all reports indicate he looked and felt great there. Now in spring training McCarthy is off to a quick start, pitching three solid innings against the Rangers last Friday. There is a lot more baseball to be played before any decisions are made, though McCarthy has to be feeling confident at the moment.

Understandably OLIVER is not overly-confident in McCarthy, projecting a modest 4.30 ERA and 6.0 K/9 rate in 110 innings. For what it’s worth, the Bill James forecasts are more optimistic with a 3.65 ERA and slightly elevated 6.7 K/9 projection. Mean projections are not supposed to be bold though, so I was not expecting any sort of confirmation from either of those sources.

Final thoughts

The major factor I’ve left out so far is McCarthy’s injury history. Although never having surgery performed on his shoulder, he has missed a lot of action with what is called “micro stress fractures in the back of his shoulder blade.” There is no determining whether McCarthy will be able to overcome his injury-ridden past, but at least his draft day price accounts for the risk.

McCarthy is not one of the first 393 players picked in Mock Draft Central drafts thus far. In my 12-team mixed home league I grabbed him in the 24th round, so he certainly is a last-round flier in mixed leagues. In the Card Runners League (12 team, AL-Only, auction) Derek participates in McCarthy sold for a final price of $3, which indicates there was some added interest in him from some very smart people (ooh la la). And for one last data point, he was not nominated in a 12-team mixed auction that Jeff Gross recently participated in.

Not everyone may share my optimism for McCarthy, and I certainly agree with the projection systems that a fairly boring season is what’s most likely for him. However, I do feel he has a better chance of realizing his upside than most of the other pitchers picked (or not) around him.

What is that upside exactly, you may be asking? Personally I don’t think it is overly important to put specific numbers to it, but if it makes you happy: 135 IP, 11 Wins, 3.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 105 K.

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FWIW, he says that he isn’t going to try to strike guys out anymore.  He seems like he wants to be a groundballer with his new sinker, so I think his K-rate will take a big dip, making him useful only in bigger (14 team plus) leagues.  Joel Pineiro might be a good comp.

Paul Singman
Paul Singman

I remember reading that quote, which is a little concerning. Piniero is a good comp if he takes that to the extreme, though I believe he can get his K rate up into the sixes.