What’s Next for Brandon McCarthy

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Brandon McCarthy knows what it’s like to have an uncertain baseball future.

He did after all, get stuck with the label of being a ‘’busted’’ prospect after being traded from the Chicago White Sox, the team that drafted him, to the Texas Rangers in 2007. After Chicago gave up on him at age 23, the next three years of his career were far from ideal. He appeared in 23 games for Texas in that 2007 campaign, 22 of which he started. The idea was that he would build on his modest success in the American League and develop into a young rotation stalwart, something that Texas at the time desperately needed (The Rangers had atrocious pitching for much of the first ten years of the new millennium). That was their reason for parting with their own starting pitching prospect, a left-hander by the name of John Danks, who has since developed into a top of the rotation pitcher for the White Sox.

It unfortunately failed to pan out for McCarthy in 2007, as he put up a 5.22 ERA to go along with a 5-10 record. He was walking 4.25 batters per nine innings while striking out a meager 5.22. Never known for being a power pitcher, as his top velocity always hovered around 90 mph, such poor strikeout-to-walk ratios were quite alarming.

Then came the arm injuries. From the beginning of spring training in 2008, McCarthy dealt with a litany of elbow and forearm problems, causing him to miss almost the entire season. He was able to make 12 starts though; 7 in the minors and 5 in the majors with unspectacular mixed results. McCarthy then suffered a strain in the flexor tendon of his finger causing him to miss most of September. By this point, the young soft-tosser was trying Texas’ patience.

The next year, 2009, began much the same as 2008 had begun. Once again, in the beginning of spring training, he was initially shut down due to an arm issue; only this time it was his shoulder. He came back in time to start the season in April, pitched through May and made one June start before going back on the disabled list due to a stress fracture in his shoulder. Once again, another season derailed by injuries and inconsistency. When he was pitching, he wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t all that good either. His ERA was consistent with his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching); 4.62 to 4.70. It’s not like he was the victim of bad luck. He was giving up too many walks and striking out too few batters, and not inducing enough ground balls.

McCarthy spent the 2010 season on the Rangers Triple A roster as a 26 year old former pitching prospect rehabbing, and hoping for a call-up to the Majors once more to prove himself. The call-up never came. McCarthy’s maturation as a pitcher, however, did.

His rehab ate up most of the year, resulting in him only being able to make 11 appearances at Oklahoma City. Nine of those appearances were starts. In 56.1 innings pitched, he struck out 44 and walked 11, while maintaining a stellar 1.3 HR/9 ratio.

Texas didn’t see him in their plans for 2010, however. In the offseason, the Rangers had sent him outright to AAA once more. McCarthy refused the assignment and elected free agency. The Oakland Athletics signed him a month later to a one year, $1 million dollar contract.

It was by this point that McCarthy had to re-establish himself. With the White Sox he was a young, potential future stud. With the Rangers, he was the guy they traded for John Danks. Now with the Oakland A’s, he was a generic right-hander in his late 20s attempting to fight off the retread status usually reserved for broken down pitchers on the wrong side of 30 years old. McCarthy was 27.

ONCE AGAIN, injuries shortened his season somewhat, but he started the most big league games of his career in 2011 with 25. More importantly, he picked up right where he left off in Triple A in 2010. He continued to cut his walks, posting the lowest walk rate of his career (3.6%). He also attained the highest strikeout rate of his major league career at 17.8%, and reduced his home run allowed rate to 1.6%, also a career low. Essentially, he figured out how to harness his stuff. He finished 9-9 on a bad Oakland A’s team, with a 3.32 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and perhaps most impressively, a 4.92 SO/BB ratio, the best of his career and 2nd among all American League starters to only the Angels’ Dan Haren.

McCarthy saw more time lost to a shoulder strain in 2012, but continued to show evidence that his 2011 success is sustainable. Through his first 18 starts, McCarthy posted an even lower ERA than last year, at 3.24. His SO/BB slightly dipped to a still solid 3.04, and he kept the ball in the ballpark, with a rate of 0.8 HR’s per 9 innings. Better yet, the Oakland Athletics have been in contention for most of the season and are poised to secure one of two Wild Card spots in American League, meaning he’s been pitching meaningful games this summer.

The only problem was, on the 18th start, a line drive by Erick Aybar ended his season.

McCarthy was struck in the side of the head and suffered a skull fracture and epidural hematoma, which required brain surgery to reduce the swelling. It would not be outlandish to say he was inches from losing his basic motor functions and ultimately his life altogether. That McCarthy is even standing, talking, and tweeting today is a miracle we can thank modern medicine for. Doctors and medical experts characterized the first few days as extremely critical towards determining if McCarthy would survive the injury; baseball was considered a secondary imperative.

While he is out of the hospital, he is not cleared to pitch for the rest of the season, including any playoff games Oakland might play. He is still hoping to be cleared to travel with the team though, and judging by his interviews and tweets it appears as though the incident has not scared him away from his profession.

AN INTERESTING TWIST in all of this is that McCarthy is set to become a free agent at this season’s end. This brings on a new set of implications: will Oakland resign him to a multi-year deal? Will any team sign a pitcher who may still be dealing with post concussion symptoms? This is not to imply that McCarthy is dishonest when he says that his symptoms are mild or that they are lessening by the day. It is just important to remember that it is quite difficult to convince an adult he cannot perform a job he loves and still believes he can perform at a high level.

McCarthy’s market value may have been hurt by this injury, which is a shame because it wasn’t his fault to begin with. It’s not as though more conditioning would have resulted in him avoiding this injury. If anything, McCarthy’s pitch selection on that particular play is as much to blame as Erick Aybar’s decision to swing. Chastising either is an exercise in futility. At the same time, it would be foolish of an organization not to factor in how he could potentially be negatively affected by this in the future. There is simply no course of action but to roll the dice and see how he reacts to the situation.

The ideal scenario for any organization wishing to sign him is the fewest years and the fewest dollars possible. The ideal situation for McCarthy is the opposite: the most years and the most dollars possible. This principle is inherent in any free agent signing. That McCarthy suffered a severe head injury severely hampers his leverage in contract negotiations, no matter how nice of a guy he is.

Working in McCarthy’s favor is that he has changed his approach while working with mostly the same repertoire of pitches he’s always had. He works with a sinker that ranges from 88-91, a cut fastball in the same velocity range, a curveball in the high 70s, and a changeup that he uses less than 3% of the time. He scrapped the use of his slider in favor of the cutter in 2012, throwing cut fastballs 39.7% of all his pitches, which happen to be the most common pitches he threw. He threw his fastball at a frequency of 38.8%.

What we can conclude from this is that McCarthy is the type of pitcher who can think his way through getting opposing hitters out. He does not rely on power or muscle; he relies on guile and finesse. Generally, pitchers such as McCarthy are safer bets to sign multi-year deals with because they are able to adapt to difficult situations on the fly more easily than other pitchers. On the flip side, his career has been littered with shoulder and forearm strains, a major impediment towards any hopes of him staying healthy and effective for years to come.

Most organizations are probably more concerned with his ability to stay healthy than his ability to stay effective. He’s shown that when healthy, he is efficient.

Given these circumstances, a fair deal for Brandon McCarthy would be a one year deal with an option for a second year, with the annual salary being in the range of anywhere between $5 and $8 million. $8 million would be a bit much, but we’ve definitely seen worse deals for pitchers. Again, since he’s smart about the way he pitches and knows his strengths, he’s worth the gamble.

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