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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