Brandon McCarthy spent the first half of the season with the Arizona Diamondbacks before getting traded to the New York Yankees in early July. McCarthy turned in a 5.01 ERA as a member of the Diamondbacks and a 2.89 ERA as a member of the Yankees. So what changed after the trade to the Yankees? Advanced statistics point heavily in one direction, but a change in process on the mound is primarily what propelled McCarthy’s turnaround.
Despite a terrible ERA, most of McCarthy’s peripheral statistics were fair with the Diamondbacks. McCarthy had a K/9 of 7.63, a BB/9 of 1.64, a FIP of 3.82 and most importantly an elite xFIP of 2.88. McCarthy’s 2.88 xFIP was one of the top xFIPs in baseball for starting pitchers at the time of his trade. McCarthy also had a .345 BABIP, which is well above the average of .300. An easy way of explaining McCarthy’s turnaround is to claim McCarthy’s high BABIP and low xFIP accurately predicted a strong progression of results, but I think in this case it’s wrong to do so.
McCarthy had the 22nd worst hard hit rate among starters in MLB during his time with Arizona in 2014. A high hard hit rate will probably lead to a high BABIP because the harder a ball is hit, the more difficult it is to field. Hard contact is usually given up due to missed location (specifically over the heart of the plate), flat stuff, or predictability. In McCarthy’s case, he claims his repertoire was too predictable. He was discouraged from using his cutter by the Diamondbacks and relied heavily on his sinker as his primary pitch. McCarthy told the New York Daily News:
It’s hard to keep major league hitters off of just one pitch (the sinker).
The predictability of McCarthy’s repertoire with Arizona resulted in a lot of hard contact. The harder a fly ball is hit, the more likely it is to go for a home run, so that can help explain why McCarthy’s HR/FB ratio was 20% with Arizona. Chase Field is also a difficult home park to pitch in due to high altitude, low humidity and thin air, which can add to increased HR/FB rates.
The Yankees encouraged McCarthy to use his cutter more often. McCarthy said of the cutter,
The cutter neutralizes the inner half of the plate against lefthanders, and you can do things away to righthanders with it. It kind of helps set up everything else and gives you some room to work.
(McCarthy) said the timing of the trade was perfect because he had grown frustrated in Arizona with the club’s preference that he not throw the cutter. "I feel like myself again," he said. "They didn’t want me throwing it any more. They wanted more sinkers away, but I feel like I need that pitch to be successful. The Yankees came to me right away and said, ‘We need to bring the cutter back into play.’ They obviously looked back and saw, ‘when he’s good he was throwing cutters. When he’s not, he wasn’t.’
Catcher Brian McCann also convinced McCarthy to throw his hard four seam fastball, which averaged 93.4 MPH with the Yankees, up in the zone more often as a counter to his sinker. John Harper wrote,
McCann, in turn, said his experience catching sinkerballers such as Tim Hudson convinced him that McCarthy needed to use his fastball and cutter to "change hitters’ eye-level and keep them from hunting just one pitch."
McCarthy’s change in process at the mound with the Yankees resulted in fantastic production. McCarthy finished with the following notable statistics with the Yankees:
9.4% swinging strike %
The quality of contact McCarthy generated with the Yankees was far better than the hard contact he gave up with the Diamondbacks. McCarthy probably won’t have the same degree of success in 2015 as the league adjusts to his new repertoire, but he’s an excellent candidate to continue to prevent runs at an above average level. With McCarthy’s performance in Arizona skewing his 2015 draft day value, I expect him to outperform his draft slot.