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|The A's think so highly of "MacNasty" that he'll earn $4.275 million this season.|
This story appears in the March 5, 2012 "Analytics Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
IT'S LATE SEPTEMBER IN THE BAY AREA. A classic Indian summer day has given way to a classic Indian summer night. High above Oakland, the cobalt clear sky is filled with stars. Down below, so too is the Fox Theater.
A few hours earlier, Moneyball made its world premiere just around the corner at the Paramount Theatre. Now it's the after-party. Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman is here. Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin is here. Superagent Scott Boras and rocker Billie Joe Armstrong are here. Even Brad Pitt is here.
Brad Freaking Pitt.
For one night, Oaktown has gone all Hollywood -- and Brandon McCarthy has gone all stalker.
The 28-year-old's early onset salt-and-pepper hair is impeccably coiffed above his angular face. Dressed in a gray Elevee suit with a skinny black tie and white sliver pocket square, the 6'7" McCarthy looks 100 percent Euro. If you saw him on the street, you might guess correctly that he was a professional athlete, but you'd probably mistake him for an imported small forward named Sasha or Bruno. He earns seven figures and is married to a model, yet tonight he's nothing more than a pimple-faced seventh-grader at a middle school dance, peering across the crowded floor and running line after line through his head.
Hi, I'm Brandon McCarthy. Too self-centered. Brandon McCarthy, Oakland A's. Too businessy. Hi, I'm a big fan of your work. Too sycophantic.
Close to midnight, McCarthy decides it's time. He's downed a sufficient quantity of Captain and Coke, and the crowd of a thousand has thinned to maybe a hundred. If he doesn't pull the trigger now, he never will. He will have forever squandered his opportunity to meet ... Bill James.
Bill Freaking James.
Heart pounding beneath the pocket square, McCarthy floats across the room to Queen's "Under Pressure." Like any self-respecting seventh-grader, he's added a wingman -- teammate and fellow pitcher Craig Breslow, a Yale grad with a degree in molecular biophysics and a passion for sabermetrics. In other words, the ideal wingman for Mission: Bill James.
With Breslow by his side, McCarthy spends the next 30 minutes completely ignoring Pitt, Hoffman and Sorkin, not to mention his beautiful wife, Amanda, in favor of talking sabermetrics with the 62-year-old rumpled stathead, which is roughly equivalent to talking lightbulbs with Thomas Edison.
They talk about ground ball rates, strikeout-to-walk ratios and how McCarthy led the AL in something called FIP. If the music hadn't stopped
"I DIDN'T WANT to suck at baseball anymore." Brandon McCarthy is recounting how he was saved. How he and sabermetrics collided.
During the first century of America's pastime, the game's language was written in stone: batting average, home runs and RBIs. Wins, losses and ERA. Then, in 1971, some fans who loved numbers founded the Society for American Baseball Research. Six years later, a Kansas security guard and SABR member named Bill James self-published a book -- it was actually 68 photocopied pages he stapled and mailed to a few dozen folks -- titled 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can't Find Anywhere Else. It was the first of 12 annual (and ultimately best-selling) abstracts that James would write, and it was the beginning of a sea change.
Sabermetrics, as James' musings became known, was at first a cryptic tongue spoken exclusively by stat-happy fans who analyzed the game but never played it. Then, in 2003, Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, a behind-the-scenes look at how trailblazing GM Billy Beane and the small-market Oakland A's used sabermetrics to assemble one of baseball's best teams. In the decade since, the game's decision makers, many of whom sprouted from the Beane management stalk, have taken a shine to the New Testament. Today, the majority of MLB front offices -- from the A's to the Yankees -- rely on sabermetric analysis to evaluate talent.
What Billy Beane was to GMs, Brandon McCarthy is now to players. Despite Beane's success and the proliferation of baseball executives who swear by James' metrics, the list of players who do so is shorter than the rightfield fence at Fenway Park. Former pitcher Brian Bannister was a known disciple, as are current hurlers Zack Greinke,
Brandon Morrow, Max Scherzer and, of
Back then, McCarthy was being heralded as the White Sox's next ace. But five lackluster years and four injuries later, the pitcher had nearly hung up his cleats. Instead, he placed both hands on the Bill James bible and swore his allegiance. Baseball, it is often said, is a game best played with the mind blank. But McCarthy had tried that and failed. He was on the verge of becoming a clubhouse punch line -- an even bigger disappointment than he already was.
Instead, he became one of the best pitchers in baseball.
BRANDON McCARTHY spent the first decade of his life in Southern California. As such, he was an Orel Hershiser fan. If Pat McCarthy took his son to Chavez Ravine to watch the Dodgers star, the boy would proceed to recite a litany of Hershiser stats. But if he saw an anonymous arm like Jim Neidlinger, who started 12 games for the Dodgers in 1990, a disappointed Brandon would look at his father and ask, "Who?"
In 1994, after thieves broke into his family's Pasadena home for the third time, Pat decided he'd rather relocate his family to Colorado Springs, Colo., than bleed Dodger blue. He heard it was a good, safe place to raise kids, and he moved his family there even though there wasn't a single friend or relative nearby. California was the past, Colorado the future.
One Sunday morning after the move, 11-year-old Brandon sat next to his father on a wooden church pew in Fort Carson. They'd spent weeks crisscrossing El Paso County and couldn't find a house of worship that felt like home. So now here they were, getting sermonized on an Army base by a preacher going on and on, when suddenly the boy turned to his father and
When he wasn't challenging the establishment, he was busy challenging hitters. Ever since he first picked up a baseball, McCarthy had thrown a flat four-seam fastball that stayed up in the strike zone and moved about as much as the Rockies. What he lacked in deception, he more than made up for with control. "Brandon was never the hardest thrower," says Pat. "But he knew how to throw strikes."
As a rail-thin 6'5", 150-pound high school senior who couldn't top 83 on the radar gun, he threw strikes. During his one year at Colorado's Lamar Community College, where his team took third in the juco World Series, he threw strikes. "Brandon had a smooth, rhythmic, repeatable delivery," says
On May 22, 2005, in the finale of an electric interleague series against the Cubs, McCarthy made his major league debut against fireballer Mark Prior at Wrigley Field. He excelled, pitching 51/3 innings, striking out six, walking just one and leaving with his team ahead 2-1. "He'll be a big asset for that organization," Prior said after the game.
His second career start, against the Rangers, didn't go nearly as well. The rook gave up four homers in only five frames, including two to Alfonso Soriano. "He took one pitch that I swear was going to hit the dirt," says McCarthy, "and hit it out -- to right-center."
The shelling continued against the cellar-dwelling Royals and Rays, who hit him harder than a pinata at a kindergartner's birthday party. Instead of going strike 1, strike 2, as he had in the minors, he would go ball 1, ball 2. "I was pitching with fear instead of confidence," says McCarthy. Pitches that used to miss the bat were getting driven; drives that used to stay in the park were going out.
The following season, the Sox slid McCarthy to the bullpen, where he felt utterly lost: "I'd be eating a Rice Krispie treat in the fourth inning, trying to stay warm, and an inning later I'd be facing the middle of the lineup with the bases loaded. I just didn't get it." Torii Hunter, then a Twin, homered off him that summer. "I was like, 'Who's the tall skinny guy with the straight fastball?'" Hunter remembers. "He wasn't hitting corners. He just threw it
In Texas, McCarthy and his four-seamer kept giving up homers and walks as if his contract contained an incentive for giving up homers and walks. After games, Amanda -- who had known McCarthy since high school -- knew not to ask questions, instead letting Linkin Park drown out the tension on their seemingly endless rides home. "My heart hurt for him," she says. Pitching coach Mike Maddux even convinced McCarthy that instead of breaking his hands at the beginning of his windup, he should keep them together and move them in a full circle, not unlike a softball pitcher's windmill motion. It didn't work. "I had so many mental problems that trying to fix something mechanical was like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," he says.
To make matters worse, McCarthy's arm made him a regular on the DL. In 2007, he developed a rare stress fracture in his scapula (shoulder blade) that caused him to miss a month. The following season, elbow tendinitis gave him a spot on the bench for four months. In 2009, the stress fracture reappeared, shelving him for another three-month stint.
Standing on the mound in Arlington one day that season, McCarthy looked up at his name on the Jumbotron and realized the ugly truth: He was Jim Neidlinger. "I had become that guy, that mediocre guy," he says. "It was this weird, surreal moment. I knew I was way better than that; I just didn't know how to get it back."
IN RETROSPECT, McCarthy might have been the perfect candidate for a sabermetric transformation. An avid reader who effortlessly drops words like peccadillo, audacity and misnomer into casual conversation, McCarthy fancies grapes over hops and lives for Liverpool soccer even though he calls
During his injury-plagued seasons, McCarthy stumbled upon a humor blog run by some Harvard kids who used sabermetrics to lampoon traditional baseball thinking. The site was called FireJoeMorgan.com, a reference to the Hall of Fame second baseman and then-ESPN analyst who famously denounced advanced metrics. The website's message immediately struck a chord. "To this day," says McCarthy, "I still think it's the greatest thing that's ever been put on the Internet."
McCarthy also bookmarked sites like Lone Star Ball, a Rangers fan site heavy on sabermetrics, and FanGraphs, an instant favorite. He learned about FIP, or fielding independent pitching, a statistical aggregate that combines what a pitcher can control (homers, walks, strikeouts), ignores what he can't (luck, defense) and is a truer barometer than ERA. He also learned about BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, a stat that indicates whether a pitcher has been especially lucky (under .300) or unlucky (over .300). He learned about WAR, or wins above replacement, the all-inclusive, apples-to-apples metric that tells how valuable a player is to his team. He learned about ground ball rates, strikeout-to-walk ratios and more.
Watching his numbers for about a year, McCarthy began to appreciate that they couldn't be explained away. "I had a limited understanding of it early on. There's a lot of ego involved," he says. "I still thought I could be successful doing things the way I had always been doing them."
But clearly that wasn't true. According to FanGraphs, an average major league player has a WAR of 2.0, which means that if he gets injured and a reserve player or minor leaguer replaces him, his team would be two wins worse without him. In McCarthy's first five seasons, he never had a WAR
|McCarthy's new sinker (above) and cutter have allowed him to generate ground balls instead of fly balls -- and therein lies his recent effectiveness.|
"Everything I was doing as a pitcher did not line up with the typical model of success," says McCarthy. Too many walks, fly balls and home runs. Not enough ground balls and strikeouts. It wasn't anything he didn't already know intuitively: During his three years in Texas, he'd spent half the time hurt and the other half hurting his team. But seeing the numbers right there on the screen and comparing them with the game's aces was the wake-up call he needed. "I wanted to do what Roy Halladay was doing," says McCarthy, referring to the dominant righty, who was, at 32, a Cy Young Award winner and six-time All-Star. During the summer of '09, McCarthy had plenty of time to read and reflect while sidelined for three months by his second shoulder injury. "The more I read, the more it just made sense," he says. "I wanted ground balls and worse contact. I wanted to attack the zone and get deep into games." By the time McCarthy came off the DL in September 2009, he'd made a decision: He was going to become Roy Halladay.
Like McCarthy, Halladay had been a highly touted prospect from Colorado who at first flamed out; unlike McCarthy, he was a ground ball-inducing machine, owing largely to his mastery of the two-seam fastball. Actually, two kinds of two-seamers: a cutter, which ran away from righties and in on lefties, and a sinker, which did the opposite. "I could never be Justin Verlander because I can't throw 101," says McCarthy. "But there's nothing freakish about Halladay, nothing that wasn't within the realm of possibility for me." Except that he couldn't throw a two-seamer to save his life.
In college, McCarthy had tinkered with one, but he could never make it move -- and what was the point of throwing a two-seamer if it didn't dance? Now here he was nearly a decade later, an endangered species, and sabermetrics was sending him a message: The four-seamer was your past, the two-seamer your future.
The fact that McCarthy was essentially home-schooling himself in sabermetrics reflects how little it has yet to saturate locker rooms, dugouts and coaches' minds. Says Keith Woolner, a prominent sabermetrician who has served as the Indians' manager of baseball analytics since 2007: "We can observe outcomes and place value on them, but it's up to the coaches to translate that into an actionable plan that can be used on the field. Not all coaches are comfortable with that."
And, according to McCarthy's wingman Breslow, the only outcome players care about involves dollar signs. "WAR doesn't give you value in the salary arbitration process," the Yale grad explains. "Until the mainstream media and the common fan recognize the importance of sabermetrics, the average player will continue to focus on home runs, RBIs, wins and ERA. That's what's sexy. That's what gets you paid."
Facing Toronto in Arlington on Sept. 1, 2009, in his first start off the DL, McCarthy decided to channel his inner sabermetrician and take the two-seamer for a ride. He had briefly discussed grip and finger pressure with Rangers teammate Scott Feldman and had thrown a few cutters and sinkers during an August rehab stint. But for the most part McCarthy was about to treat big league hitters like guinea pigs. Typically, when a hurler fiddles with his repertoire, it's a minor adjustment: a slider tweaked, a changeup retooled. Yet McCarthy was considering retiring the heater he'd thrown three out of every five windups for his entire baseball life. "For a pitcher to reinvent himself midcareer is almost unheard of," says McCarthy's agent, Ryan Ware. On McCarthy's sixth pitch, leadoff hitter Marco Scutaro grounded out to short. Joe Inglett, up next, singled to right. Adam Lind, up third, grounded into a double play. Inning over.
Despite not fully committing to his new two-seamers -- he mixed the cutter and sinker in with his regular four-seamer -- McCarthy worked into the seventh, giving up just one run and recording more grounders than flies, an
Sabermetric research shows that, historically, fly balls generate 0.13 runs per out, while ground balls produce only 0.05 runs per out. In other words, the average fly ball is nearly three times as dangerous as the average ground ball. Prior to debuting the two-seamer, McCarthy's career ratio of ground balls to fly balls, or GB/FB, lived on the wrong side of one. In 2007, among pitchers with at least 100 innings, his 0.76 GB/FB ratio was fourth worst in the American League. Early in 2009, before he introduced his cutter and sinker, the ratio dipped even lower, to 0.73. But at the end of the season, when McCarthy logged on to FanGraphs, he was shocked. During that final month, his GB/FB ratio had nearly doubled, all the way to 1.44. That same season only six AL starters had a higher GB/FB ratio -- Halladay among them. "I remember standing on the mound feeling like, Wow, that's a whole lot more ground balls than I used to get," he says. More ground balls meant fewer fly balls. Fewer fly balls meant fewer homers. In his final six starts of 2009, McCarthy allowed just two jacks. "Right then, I was sold," he says.
Unfortunately, the Rangers weren't. Grounders or not, McCarthy was still walking too many batters. He was like Son of Jor-El after arriving on planet Earth -- he suddenly had superpowers but couldn't harness them. "I'd never pitched with that stuff," he says. "I didn't know when to throw what." The following March, McCarthy was assigned to Triple-A Oklahoma City. Just like that, he was on the outside looking in.
During the next couple of months, McCarthy learned how to tame his two-seamer. But in June, when his scapula inexplicably flared up for the third time, McCarthy finally hit bottom. "I didn't think I'd be able to stay healthy enough to sustain an actual career," he says. So he booted up his laptop and started researching online universities. "It was the first time in my life that I truly entertained thoughts that I was done with baseball," he says. That is,
Watching video of McCarthy's extreme overhand motion, Clark realized that the pitcher's arm was pronating at the moment of delivery, and the pressure was twisting his scapula. "It was really ugly," says Clark. "He's lucky his scapula was the only thing that broke." Clark had McCarthy drop down to a more natural three-quarter arm angle, like Halladay's. McCarthy's whole motion became a study in minimalism. Less right arm, more back leg. No more falling off the mound toward first base.
In December 2010, after pitching lights-out in winter ball, McCarthy inked a one-year, $1 million deal with the A's, who'd long had their eyes on him. "We thought so highly of Brandon," says Oakland exec Farhan Zaidi, "that when the deal went down in 2006, our thinking was, Damn, we can't believe Texas just got McCarthy." In theory, the Oakland signing was a marriage made in heaven: the Moneyballing franchise that popularized sabermetrics and the failed, undervalued hurler who used it to resurrect his career.
SEVEN PITCHES. That's how long it took for the verdict to come in. On April 5, in the first inning of his first start in an A's uniform, Brandon McCarthy went groundout, groundout, groundout. It was a one-inning sabermetric masterpiece. For the game, he lasted eight innings -- the second-longest start of his career -- and threw just 89 pitches.
Back with the Rangers, when he was throwing nearly 18 pitches per inning, stepping onto the mound felt more like stepping into the ring. "After starts," says McCarthy, "my entire body would be numb." Now taking the mound felt more like taking a vacation. "It was ffffun," says McCarthy, drawing out the F for emphasis. "I was getting outs at the big league level in ways I'd never gotten them before."
|Amanda and Brandon, who've known each other since high school, married on Nov. 20, 2010. Amanda travels to most A's games and flirts with Brandon on Twitter. "Happy birthday babe!" she wrote last summer. "Congrats. Your balls are a little saggier today."|
His first couple of years in the majors, McCarthy's BABIP was among the lowest in the league (.249 in '05, .255 in '06). Put simply, he was one of the luckiest bastards in baseball. With Oakland last year, his BABIP was .296, just four points off the historical luck-neutral benchmark of .300. It's a stat that's not lost on McCarthy. "He's got a pretty acute knowledge of what his numbers are," says Breslow, whose astronomical .342 BABIP last year became a running clubhouse joke between the two amateur sabermetricians.
McCarthy's filthy stuff, on the other hand, was no laughing matter. "He's not trying to strike you out," says Hunter, who had long dominated the lanky pitcher -- until last season. "He's trying to get a ground ball. He's keeping guys off balance, and he's hitting his spots. He's learned how to pitch." ("The first time I got him out last year," says McCarthy, "I was like, 'Oh my god, I really did something!' That just wasn't possible before.") A's manager Bob Melvin says McCarthy's new pitching approach reminds him of Greg Maddux, the 300-game winner and surefire Hall of Famer. Says Melvin: "He takes great pride in being able to throw the ball where he wants." And when he wants.
Michael Young, who led the AL in hits last year, recalls one recent at-bat when McCarthy, who'd been pounding the outside corner, threw a sinker in that crossed up Young and shattered his bat. "You piece of s--," Young texted McCarthy after the game. "I really liked that bat."
Not that McCarthy did everything perfectly. By season's end, he had missed six weeks due to injuries and won just nine games pitching for an Oakland team that had the AL's third-worst offense in terms of runs scored. Still, his home run rate (.58 per nine innings) was third best in the AL, his 4.92 K/BB ratio set an A's record and his 4.7 WAR placed him ahead of Yovani Gallardo, Tim Lincecum and Josh Beckett, all of whom received Cy Young votes.
But even in defeat McCarthy could look brilliant. On Sept. 26, exactly one week after stalking Bill James at the Moneyball premiere, MacNasty -- the
Six pitches. That's how long it took to finish. In the final inning of his final start of the season, Brandon McCarthy went groundout, groundout, lineout. Another sabermetric masterpiece.
On a Wednesday afternoon in January, the 2011 American League FIP leader stands in the private locker room of Grailey's, a swanky Dallas wine shop, surveying the gold nameplates above each bottle-filled cubby: Brad Richards ... Brett Hull ... Brandon McCarthy. On the top row, three letters mark Dirk Nowitzki's collection: MVP. "How cool would it be if, a couple years from now, yours reads, 'Cy Young?'" an onlooker says.
"It was one year," says McCarthy, humoring the query. The A's seem to like his odds: Six days later, they'll sign the righthander to a one-year deal worth $4.275 million, good for a 328 percent pay raise. For now, though, McCarthy focuses instead on life's little victories.
"I don't suck anymore," he says.
Eddie Matz is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.