Brandon McCarthy represents both the problem and the solution in regards to the Dodgers rotation woes, he also happens to be next in line for our player previews.
As has become the trend for the Dodgers in recent years, the team approached the 2014/2015 off-season in need of starting pitching. With Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu firmly set at the top of the rotation, the Dodgers front office prioritized depth over star power and inked McCarthy to a 4 year, $48M deal. However, before he can start to make good on that deal, McCarthy will first have to get healthy.
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McCarthy’s season recap for 2015 is rather short. Why? Because McCarthy lasted just 5 starts before succumbing to a UCL tear (and subsequent Tommy John Surgery) he would spend the rest of the 2015 season (and will start 2016) on the Disabled List.
Even when healthy however, McCarthy’s 2015 wasn’t particularly pleasing – at least on first glance. In his 5 starts, McCarthy was 3-0 with a 5.87 ERA and an alarming 6.22 FIP. McCarthy did however, manage 29 strikeout against just 4 walks in his 23 innings of work. All in all, McCarthy was worth -0.3 WAR (below replacement value) in 2015.
However, when you dive in a little deeper, McCarthy’s 2015 (the 5 starts he did make) was actually pretty good. It appears that rather than poor performance – as his surface numbers might suggest – McCarthy may have been the victim of bad luck, the kind that usually arises out of small sample sizes.
In terms of the outcomes a pitcher has (some) control over, McCarthy actually performed extraordinarily well. When projecting future performance (as is the intention here) it is important to evaluate a pitcher in terms of the things he has the most control over. These are generally considered to be Walks, Strikeouts and Groundballs. In 2015, McCarthy compiled an 11.35 K/9, 1.57 BB/9 and a 38.3 GB%.
The last of those 3 figures is a bit below league average (McCarthy is also usually very strong in this area), however his ability to generate strikeouts and limit walks was well above average. McCathy’s K/9 rate is due to regress some upon his return from Tommy John, as he usually sits between 5-7 K/9. However, it is important to note that this spike in K/9 with a large spike in velocity over the last two seasons (from an average of appx 90 mph earlier in his career to 92 in 2014, then 93.5 in 2015). Velocity is pretty strongly correlated with velocity, so if he can sustain the higher velocity, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a higher K-rate from McCarthy in the future.
Where McCarthy appears to have come undone is his ridiculous 37.5 HR/FB rate in 2015. That’s insane. Now given that that is unsustainably higher than the league average rate and well above his career rate of 10.9, we can expect that number to regress dramatically when he returns to the mound. As a result of this and hopefully a larger sample size in 2016, we should expect better performance in 2016.
2016 Role and Steamer Projections
As I alluded to earlier, McCarthy’s role with the team is somewhat unclear. The Dodgers need pitching, McCarthy is a pitcher. The Dodgers need pitching because McCarthy is injured and he is expected to be so up until the All-Star break. McCarthy’s role with the team seems to hinge heavily on the front offices decisions on how to replace his starts in the first half of the season, as well as the health of Hyun-Jin Ryu. If the Dodgers choose to simply fill his rotation spot with stop-gaps such as Mike Bolsinger or Brandon Beachy, then McCarthy has a clear path to the rotation when he returns. However, with the health of Hyun-Jin Ryu in question, along with the firepower of the rotation on the whole, the Dodgers may choose to take the upside play and promote top prospects Jose de Leon or Julio Urias. As two of the better pitching prospects in the game, they could potentially block McCarthy out of the rotation in 2016.
Regardless, Steamer projects McCarthy to go 4-3 in 10 starts along with a 3.26 ERA in 57 IP. As far as peripherals are concerned, Steamer projects McCarthy to post a 7.47 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 and 0.9 WAR in 2016.
What Could Go Wrong?
Focusing simply on the Tommy John element, there is plenty of risk in projecting McCarthy. Whilst the vast majority of Tommy John cases result in the player reaching his prior performance levels, there are still some who do not. There’s also the risk of re-occurrence which might be extremely slim but McCarthy only has to look across to teammate Brandon Beachy to realise it does happen. Also, Tommy john is only the latest in a long line of injuries for the ill-fated McCarthy.
There’s also the issue of playing time. If McCarthy is in fact ready to return in June, as mentioned earlier, there may be no spot available in the rotation. If Urias and de Leon are in fact promoted and perform well, the Dodgers may prefer to continue with their young pitchers rather than the veteran McCarthy.
What Could Go Right?
Thankfully, most of the issues mentioned above are relatively low percentage chances. Most players will return to the prior level of performance after Tommy John surgery and a very small few ever need a second procedure. As far as major arm injuries go, Tommy John not the worst one.
Secondly, it is unlikely to see either Urias or de Leon promoted early in the season as it would eat into their service time and unnecessarily rush their development. It also creates a logjam when McCarthy, Brett Anderson and Ryu return during the season.
And finally, McCarthy simply needs to have his HR/FB rate regress and induce a greater number of ground balls (as he usually does) to re-find success. It is probably unfair to ask McCarthy to eat up a large number of innings upon his return but he still should be a solid member of the rotation in the second half. If he can maintain the velocity spike from the previous two seasons, then there is a real chance that McCarthy could potentially look a number 2/3 starter in the second half.
Let us know what you expect from McCarthy in the comments below