Buying Low on Brandon McCarthy Could Be Right Move For the Oakland A’s

File this one into the “pure speculation” folder, and perhaps a bit of nostalgic thinking, but wouldn’t Brandon McCarthy look great in green and gold again, toeing the rubber at the (O.co) Oakland Coliseum throughout the remaining three months of the regular season? Wouldn’t it be great to see a player who was a big part of the A’s becoming a force in the American League West back in 2012 coming home to perhaps contend for a first trip to the World Series since 1990?

A quick glance at McCarthy’s 2014 stat-line and you’d dismiss this right away. A 1-10 record, 5.38 ERA and league-high 117 hits and 58 earned runs will surely have you asking what he can provide that Tommy Milone and Brad Mills can not? Having allowed the fourth most homers in baseball, 15, surely doesn’t add up to a pitcher you want to try to acquire for a playoff-push, is it?

Before his season was cut short after being hit in the head by a line drive, McCarthy had emerged as one of the leaders of the A’s rotation. Along with Jonny Gomes and Brandon Inge, he was one of the veteran leaders of American League West Championship team.

His career track record, and previous experience and results in Oakland make him a surer bet down the stretch than the untested Drew Pomeranz, Brad Mills, Dan Straily or even Tommy Milone.

Behind Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez, McCarthy would slot nicely as a No.4 starter with any of the above mentioned pitchers filling out the fifth and final spot in the rotation.

Under the tutelage of Curt Young, McCarthy should be able to rediscover the success he enjoyed in Oakland two seasons ago. Plus, with his struggles this season, he shouldn’t command too high of a return from the Diamondbacks, perhaps with Arizona even kicking in part of his salary.

Add that Billy Beane, Bob Melvin and Young are all familiar with McCarthy, and he enjoyed his time in Oakland, and you have all the makings of a potential deal. Not to mention Beane has hooked up with Arizona several times in deals throughout his tenure as A’s general manager.

Can it really be trusted that a 1-10 pitcher will be an upgrade though to an already good rotation?

Deceptive Stats in 2014

Chase Field, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, has traditionally been a middle-of-the-pack park in terms of being a hitter-friendly vs. pitcher-friendly park. This year it’s actually favoring pitchers a little better than hitters, but that does not necessarily mean that the park has suddenly become a place that pitchers will begin flocking to in search of lower ERA’s.

The biggest difference in McCarthy’s production since he left Oakland has been his determination in getting ground-ball outs. Yeah, I know, that doesn’t make sense when we are talking about home runs being allowed — except that it does. Keep reading and I will explain.

While with Oakland, McCarthy established himself as a ground-ball pitcher, though for his career he has allowed just under half of his batted balls to be fly-balls though. In the pitching-friendly confines of the Coliseum, this style of pitching was conducive to McCarthy establishing career-best numbers. The emphasis on ground balls reduces extra-base hits and the outfielders run down those balls that do find themselves lifted up in the air.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
2005 CHW 3 2 .600 4.03 12 10 0 0 67.0 62 30 30 13 17 48 112 4.96 1.179 8.3 1.7 2.3 6.4 2.82
2006 CHW 4 7 .364 4.68 53 2 0 0 84.2 77 44 44 17 33 69 102 5.30 1.299 8.2 1.8 3.5 7.3 2.09
2007 TEX 5 10 .333 4.87 23 22 0 0 101.2 111 62 55 9 48 59 94 4.74 1.564 9.8 0.8 4.2 5.2 1.23
2008 TEX 1 1 .500 4.09 5 5 0 0 22.0 20 11 10 3 8 10 110 5.22 1.273 8.2 1.2 3.3 4.1 1.25
2009 TEX 7 4 .636 4.62 17 17 1 1 97.1 96 55 50 13 36 65 101 4.70 1.356 8.9 1.2 3.3 6.0 1.81
2011 OAK 9 9 .500 3.32 25 25 5 1 170.2 168 73 63 11 25 123 121 2.86 1.131 8.9 0.6 1.3 6.5 4.92
2012 OAK 8 6 .571 3.24 18 18 0 0 111.0 115 44 40 10 24 73 120 3.76 1.252 9.3 0.8 1.9 5.9 3.04
2013 ARI 5 11 .313 4.53 22 22 2 1 135.0 161 71 68 13 21 76 84 3.75 1.348 10.7 0.9 1.4 5.1 3.62
2014 ARI 1 10 .091 5.38 16 16 0 0 97.0 117 62 58 15 18 80 69 4.08 1.392 10.9 1.4 1.7 7.4 4.44
9 Yrs 43 60 .417 4.24 191 137 8 3 886.1 927 452 418 104 230 603 99 4.11 1.305 9.4 1.1 2.3 6.1 2.62
TEX (3 yrs) 13 15 .464 4.68 45 44 1 1 221.0 227 128 115 25 92 134 98 4.77 1.443 9.2 1.0 3.7 5.5 1.46
ARI (2 yrs) 6 21 .222 4.89 38 38 2 1 232.0 278 133 126 28 39 156 77 3.89 1.366 10.8 1.1 1.5 6.1 4.00
OAK (2 yrs) 17 15 .531 3.29 43 43 5 1 281.2 283 117 103 21 49 196 120 3.22 1.179 9.0 0.7 1.6 6.3 4.00
CHW (2 yrs) 7 9 .438 4.39 65 12 0 0 151.2 139 74 74 30 50 117 106 5.15 1.246 8.2 1.8 3.0 6.9 2.34
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/26/2014.

As you can see by the chart above, McCarthy posted his two best seasons statistically with the Oakland A’s in 2011-2012. As you will see by the chart below, his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratios have always been sort of middle of the pack, excluding his abbreviated 2008 campaign. He posted 0.90 & 0.69 ratios respectively in 2011-2012. This season he is pitching to a whopping 1.28 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio. His HR/FB ratio is among the highest in his career though, at 11.8%.

Year Tm Lg PA Ptn% HR% SO% BB% XBH% X/H% GB/FB GO/AO IP% LD% HR/FB IF/FB DPopp DPs DP%
2005 CHW AL 277 52% 4.7% 17.3% 6.1% 9.8% 44% 0.58 0.73 71% 15% 11.1% 11% 46 6 13%
2006 CHW AL 354 62% 4.8% 19.5% 9.3% 7.6% 35% 0.63 0.80 66% 14% 13.3% 16% 60 9 15%
2007 TEX AL 459 52% 2.0% 12.9% 10.5% 8.9% 37% 0.59 0.63 73% 17% 4.8% 13% 89 7 8%
2008 TEX AL 93 46% 3.2% 10.8% 8.6% 8.6% 40% 0.37 0.44 76% 22% 6.1% 9% 12 2 17%
2009 TEX AL 420 48% 3.1% 15.5% 8.6% 8.1% 35% 0.66 0.81 72% 21% 7.9% 13% 73 5 7%
2011 OAK AL 690 47% 1.6% 17.8% 3.6% 7.5% 31% 0.90 1.14 76% 20% 4.6% 15% 113 16 14%
2012 OAK AL 469 48% 2.1% 15.6% 5.1% 7.3% 30% 0.69 0.99 75% 22% 5.5% 12% 78 8 10%
2013 ARI NL 577 48% 2.3% 13.2% 3.6% 7.8% 28% 0.98 1.45 79% 27% 6.0% 8% 90 11 12%
2014 ARI NL 416 50% 3.6% 19.2% 4.3% 9.9% 35% 1.28 2.00 72% 26% 11.8% 7% 69 9 13%
9 Yrs 3755 50% 2.8% 16.1% 6.1% 8.2% 33% 0.78 1.01 74% 21% 7.4% 12% 630 73 12%
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/26/2014.

Part of the reason that McCarthy has struggled in 2014 despite posting a very good 4.44 so/w ratio (80 strikeouts to just 18 walks), is that the pitches he is allowing to get elevated are flying out of the ballpark.

According to BrooksBaseball.net, McCarthy has thrown 1429 total pitches this season, 792 of which have been sinkers. This fairly easily explains the increase in ground balls, however it also helps to explain his struggles with the homers that have plagued him. Eight of the homers he has allowed have been on sinkers, four of those were on the first pitch. This suggests that he was trying to throw “get-ahead” pitches and simply allowed those sinkers to catch too much of the plate, rather than using the pitch as his “out-pitch” after getting ahead using his cutter, curve or change-up.

Anyway, what I am getting at here, and perhaps going into way too much detail, is that his HR/FB rate is skewed by the fact that he is not giving up nearly as many fly-balls as he previously did and the increase in splitters is resulting in a number of those missing their spot, or catching too much of the plate because they are thrown on first pitches. The splitters that have been left over the middle of the plate have resulted in more than half of the homers he has allowed. Cut down on the homers, and you also cut down on the earned runs allowed. Makes sense, right? Well, especially when you look at six of the homers he has allowed have been with runners on base. Twenty-five of his 58 earned runs have come on homers.

In 2011-2012 while with the A’s, McCarthy used his cutter more than 50% of the time, down to just 11% of the time this season. I bring this back to the park-factor. Baseball-Reference gives Chase Field a park-factor of 103.5, favoring the hitters, compared to the 98 the Oakland Coliseum averaged in 2011-2012, favoring the pitcher.

In the one start McCarthy has made in a comparable park to the Coliseum, Petco Park in San Diego, he threw seven innings of shutout ball, allowing just three hits (two doubles) and one walk, while striking out six batters. You can chalk this up to the team being the weak-hitting Padres, or you can look at the ballpark he was pitching in and realize that it allowed McCarthy to let his outfielders do their job rather than turn and watch the ball sail out of the yard.

In 88 pitches thrown that day, he still used his sinker the majority of the time, throwing it 56 times compared to just six cutters and four fastballs (curve ball was used 22 times). His other away starts have been in Colorado, Houston, and Chicago (both the Cubs and White Sox). None of those parks are as forgiving as Petco Park, or the Oakland Coliseum.

His career averages suggest that the HR/FB ratio will come back to earth, at least closer to his 7.4% career average, and  the .341 BABIP is also a bit fluky and should fall back to around his .297 career average.

Dropping that BABIP number, which is a direct result of batters being more aggressive on first pitches knowing McCarthy will give them a strike, will also result in less base runners to hurt him when the occasional long-ball does result.

It’s an over simplification for sure, but the emphasis McCarthy has put on inducing the ground ball by over-using his splitter could be corrected if he were pitching in a more comfortable environment where his park favors the pitcher and fly balls are less dangerous. He just may start leading with his cutter again and using the splitter as his out pitch and come back to the levels he was at in 2011-2012.

What Would it Cost the A’s?

Yeah, David Price or Jeff Samardzija would be nice, but those fall into the “wishful thinking” category. McCarthy is a more attainable goal and he falls in line with Beane’s track record of buying low on reclamation projects — McCarthy being a prime example of exactly that when he signed with Oakland prior to the 2011 season. 

Getting back to that “back of the baseball card” stuff, the 1-10 record, 5.38 ERA and 15 homers allowed all play to Oakland’s favor. McCarthy reaching free agency at the end of the season also favors the A’s. The Diamondbacks will have to eat a portion of the remaining balance on McCarthy’s $9 million contract (a little over $4 million still owed). Further, it should not take more than a low-level prospect or two to get McCarthy. I won’t begin to suggest names since this is all completely speculative, but it’s safe to assume that Kevin Towers would not ask for Addison Russell or any of Oakland’s top prospects.

While the Brad Mills for a dollar trade looks like an absolute steal just because of the compensation sent back to Milwaukee, any trade bringing McCarthy back to the Bay Area has the potential to be the steal of the year if a return to his old stomping grounds could generate a resurgence and turn around his season.

At the very least, the change of scenery back to where he was a fan favorite should be welcomed by Brandon and his wife, Amanda, and A’s fans.