During spring training we often hear about new workout regimens, new pitches, or some other sort of improvement from players. Brandon McCarthy was no exception as he talked about a new training regimen. McCarthy’s increased velocity this season has convinced everyone that his new training program is intense. He threw his four-seam fastball 1.21 MPH faster this April versus April 2013, and 1.78 MPH faster this May versus last May. The other variations of his fastball (cutter, sinker) have seen similar increases as well.

The increased velocity has come with expected changes. With the exception of his sinker, all of Brandon’s pitches have a bit less vertical movement. The uptick in velocity has also lead to a higher whiff rate. Batters have been swinging and missing more often at all of his pitches, with the most dramatic increase coming from his four-seam fastball. Despite a potential small sample size bias, this year batters have whiffed at 25% of his four-seamers, compared to 11.54% last year. The increased velocity has made it harder for batters to make contact. I also want to note that McCarthy has been throwing the four-seamer much more often than last year, mostly to left-handed hitters. It’s been successful thus far, and is something to monitor as the season moves along.

To go along with the strikeouts, McCarthy has been inducing a career-high groundball rate. He’s getting almost 7% more groundballs this year versus last year. There are a variety of ways to increase the groundball rate as a pitcher, as I talked about last week, but the results here are mainly due to better location. We explained last week that lower pitches produce groundballs at a higher rate. Brooksbaseball.net has divided the area around the strike zone into five rows and five columns. In 2013, Brandon threw 26.13% of his pitches in the uppermost two columns compared to only 20.06% this season. Last year he threw 44.21% of his pitches in the lower third of the strike zone and below, while this year it’s 52.76%. This change may be a result of his increased usage of both his sinker and curveball, two pitches that he has a history of throwing down in the zone.

So McCarthy has thrown harder and located his pitches better, yet he has posted a 5.20 ERA and 3.88 FIP. Both numbers are worse than last year’s, but there are signs that this has been the result of bad luck. Brandon’s LOB%, HR/FB ratio and BABIP are all above previous career-high levels. Jeff has explained what drives BABIP for hitters. For pitchers, hard hit balls certainly matter, but the batters’ speed is not important; we expect them to face batters with varying amounts of speed throughout the year. It will become a nonfactor as the sample size grows. In this instance, Brandon has given up line drives at a lower rate, so the BABIP should come down from .327, which is higher than his .320 last year, and much higher than the .295 and .296 he induced during his Oakland years. As Jeff’s article mentioned, it can take a long time for the luck to even out, and my intuition tells me that defense plays a role in BABIP too.

Although McCarthy’s BABIP might not even out over the course of the season, he’s not going to have a HR/FB rate of 20.8 all season. According to the tools at baseballsavant.com, the majority of his homers have come from pitches in the middle of the plate. We talked about Brandon’s control earlier, and he’s had virtually the same number of pitches in the middle column of the zone as last year. The majority of the homers have come against sinkers, but he throws sinkers almost 60% of the time, so that’s to be expected. The real explanation is probably that three of the eleven homers were hit by the Rockies in one start at the notoriously hitter-friendly Coors’ Field.

As the season progresses, McCarthy’s luck should change, and his ERA should trend closer to his xFIP of 2.86. More strikeouts and more grounders should lead to successful run prevention for McCarthy. Hopefully a few wins will follow.

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5 Responses to Brandon McCarthy: More Speed, More Strikeouts

  1. Puneet says:

    It seems like Brandon starts giving up several more hits the second/third time through the order. Could that be the result of the reduced movement on his pitches (for higher velocity)?

    Jeff and I talked (via twitter) about how he has these innings where he gives up 5-6 hits in a row (or with one out in between). It’s hard to imagine that he’s experiencing such huge swings in luck within a game (from looking perfect the first couple innings, to horrible in the next couple).

    I always thought it would be interesting if he started the game throwing with less velocity and more movement, and threw harder as the game went (so hitters would have difficulty getting used to his velocity). Or maybe visa verse. But that sounds kinda like the crazy things Bronson does

  2. Paulnh says:

    Brandon McCarthy has allowed a .135/.159/.202 slash line the first time through the order this season. The second time through, .385/.434/.604. In the first three innings, Brandon McCarthy’s ERA is an even 2.00. In the fourth, 11.91. In the fifth, 7.84. There is no question that his problem is the second time through the order, but why is that? In his career, his ERA and BA against increase slightly every inning which is to be expected, but it is nothing like what he is experiencing this year.

    One thing that I have noticed is that he seems to be using all of his pitches early in the game. He’s not saving any of his off speed stuff for the second time through the lineup. That is just something that I have noticed and I would love if someone could find out if that is really the case. It certainly could be a problem because the hitters would be coming to the plate for the second time already seeing everything that he has. I know that there is no way to quantify this, but I really do believe that it has become a mental problem for McCarthy. After all, he is human, he knows the numbers and has to realize how terrible he is in the middle innings. If he could keep his cool after giving up a hit in the fourth and fifth innings he would be our best pitcher by far.

  3. Rod says:

    Yeah let me see if I can look into that Paul. One big problem could be that he’s completely ditched his changeup. I’m sure that’s contributing to the problem you’re citing. That leaves his curveball as the only pitch that’s not a variation of the fastball.

  4. […] took a look at McCarthy earlier this week, so suffice it to say: he’s actually been pretty good despite his 5.20 ERA. […]

  5. […] is also definitely involved. There’s a lot for McCarthy’s suitors to dream on, including his newfound velocity and new repertoire, and even with a $1 million signing bonus kicking in, we think we can be fairly […]

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