LOS ANGELES -- Brandon McCarthy pitches in a statistically extreme way, so it makes sense he pays close attention to some of his numbers. For example, he allowed 2.13 ground balls for every fly ball he gave up last season, which isn’t terribly surprising considering his out pitch is a sinker. Only five major-league pitchers had a more lopsided grounder-to-fly ball ratio.
McCarthy mixes in some cutters and breaking pitches and is perfectly capable of coming up with a strikeout in a pinch, but what he generally is trying to do is force hitters to make off-center contact and beat ball after ball into the dirt or infield grass.
McCarthy’s chances of succeeding on the Los Angeles Dodgers -- with whom he just signed a four-year, $48 million deal -- would have been quite different had the team not been making a couple of concurrent moves while finalizing talks with McCarthy’s agent. They agreed to send a couple of pitching prospects to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for aging, but still reliable shortstop Jimmy Rollins, and orchestrated a three-team trade that sent second baseman Dee Gordon to the Miami Marlins and landed Howie Kendrick in L.A.
The Dodgers’ defense wasn’t particularly good last season, particularly when it came to turning double plays and stopping balls hit up the middle. Hanley Ramirez, who is now a left fielder for the Boston Red Sox, might have been the worst defensive shortstop in baseball. Gordon, while quick and agile enough, had lapses in concentration and graded out poorly in advanced defensive metrics.
Both Rollins and Kendrick grade out as above-average defenders.
McCarthy is familiar with the way the Dodgers’ front office works because he spent two seasons pitching for the Oakland A’s and developed a relationship with Farhan Zaidi, who is now the Dodgers’ general manager and was then one of Billy Beane’s deputies.
“They’re going to find successful combinations and make those the name of the game,” McCarthy said. “That’s all I ask for, people who are going to put me in a position to succeed.”
One could argue the merits of the Dodgers’ offseason moves so far. Without Matt Kemp and Ramirez, who finished first and fourth on the team in slugging percentage, it’s reasonable to expect them to score fewer runs next season. For all the Dodgers’ faults in 2014, they finished second to the Colorado Rockies in runs scored despite playing in one of the league’s extreme pitchers’ parks.
But what stands out about the extreme makeover president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and his staff have orchestrated is the synergy between each of the moves. We can at least make out the traces of a master plan.
Brett Anderson, another pitcher with a history of injuries the Dodgers are in the process of signing, has ground ball rates similar to McCarthy’s. In fact, in eight starts for the Colorado Rockies last year, he allowed 2.77 groundballs for every fly ball.
The Dodgers still have their share of strikeout pitchers, of course. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Kenley Jansen rely on missing bats, but they still need to get ahead of hitters. That’s where catcher Yasmani Grandal, acquired from the San Diego Padres for Kemp, comes in. He’s not a particularly good thrower, but he’s one of the best pitch framers in the game. For whatever reason, Grandal tends to get more balls called strikes and more strikes correctly called than most catchers. Grandal also is a switch hitter, which gives the Dodgers a better fit for a platoon with right-handed-hitting A.J. Ellis, and most scouts think he has offensive upside. He hit 15 home runs last year, but that was while playing half his games in cavernous Petco Park.
Grading the bullpen before the season starts is virtually impossible, but by getting younger -- they designated Brian Wilson for assignment and have brought in younger pitchers Juan Nicasio and Chris Hatcher -- they also have gotten more flexible. One of the dilemmas for the Dodgers last season is that they were handcuffed in making bullpen changes because they stacked up too many guaranteed contracts. Some of the relievers next season will have options, meaning they can be demoted to Triple-A if they’re not performing and replaced with relievers who are performing well in the minors.
Another common theme: contact. Rollins made contact on more than 85 percent of his swings last season. Kendrick made contact 81 percent of the time and Grandal 75 percent. Kemp swung and missed nearly 30 percent of the time. Presuming the Dodgers are good enough to get to the playoffs -- a good bet considering three of the teams in their division are in rebuilding mode -- they should have a better chance of success in the postseason, when pitching tightens up, with a contact-oriented approach.
Considering it’s still December and games are nearly four months away, you can argue the Dodgers haven’t improved their chances in 2015, but it’s hard to argue they haven’t had a vision. As Friedman said over and over at his introductory media conference, it’s about trusting the process.