Through three starts, Oakland's Brandon McCarthy owns a 2.45 ERA. With a Thursday night start against the Mariners, he only stands to improve. The A's came into the season knowing they were rich in arms and rich in starters, but McCarthy's success has come as a little more of a surprise than that of, say, Brett Anderson or Gio Gonzalez. It's because of McCarthy's effectiveness that the team is currently rolling five deep in the rotation. So as the A's gear up for a run at the division, one has to wonder: Is this new Brandon McCarthy a different Brandon McCarthy? And if so, is he for real?
The answer to the first question is an absolute yes. To understand the new Brandon McCarthy, one must first understand the old Brandon McCarthy. And while I'll spare you the grisly details, McCarthy was a top prospect who got dealt to Texas for John Danks and subsequently had trouble staying on the mound due to arm and shoulder problems. When McCarthy was able to pitch, he was passable - he posted a 4.68 ERA over 221 innings between 2007-2009 - but his command wasn't what he wanted, and he was among the most extreme fly-ball pitchers in baseball. Between the flies, the command, and the injuries, McCarthy was playing a dangerous game.
McCarthy missed a lot of the 2010 season due to problems with his shoulder, and made 11 appearances in AAA. And it was somewhere in there that he decided to make a change. McCarthy turned 27 last July, and his career was trending in the wrong direction, in no small part because his shoulder wouldn't shut up. So he made an adjustment that would make things a little easier on his body. Wrote Susan Slusser:
McCarthy, 27, signed with Oakland as a free agent in December after losing parts of each of the past four seasons to injuries, including three stress fractures in his right shoulder. His new style takes some pressure off the shoulder because he is no longer throwing straight over the top; McCarthy considers himself more of a sidearm-style pitcher.
McCarthy didn't quite turn himself into a side-armer, but the difference is striking. Here we see McCarthy in 2009, and McCarthy in 2011:
Before, McCarthy came right over the top, with his shoulders practically vertical. He has since adopted a more conventional arm angle and a more conventional shoulder level. While it means the ball is being delivered on less of a downward plane, the new delivery is presumably much less taxing on the joint, and also makes the ball easier to spot.
And McCarthy isn't only working with a new arm angle. From the same Slusser article, McCarthy says he's all but replaced his old four-seam fastball with two-seamers and cutters. The different fastball is evident in McCarthy's PITCHfx data, where it shows about six more inches of sink, and it's also less nerdily evident in his groundball rate. The breakdown:
Career: 36% groundballs
2011: 48% groundballs
So far in 2011, Brandon McCarthy has generated more groundballs than he ever has in his life, he's thrown more strikes than he has in ages, and he's done it all without sacrificing velocity or swings and misses. It's safe to say that McCarthy's pitching adjustments are working out pretty well for him.
Is he going to continue having this much success? Nobody expects Brandon McCarthy to finish with a 2.45 ERA, so in that regard, no, he is not. But he's throwing strikes, he's getting grounders, he's missing some bats, and he's feeling phsically healthy. All the signs are good that McCarthy's going to have himself a big bounceback season.
Just a year ago, it looked like Brandon McCarthy could be out of baseball entirely by his 30th birthday. Now, thanks to a few adjustments he's made to his delivery and repertoire, he's back on track to not only have a career, but to have a good career. An effective, healthy career. So often we hear about athletes too stubborn to make the changes they need to make in order to achieve or maintain success. Let's chalk one up for open-mindedness.