Trade Target: Brandon McCarthy

Given that Gio Gonzalez, who I touched on yesterday, is under club control for four more seasons and is only 26 years old, Billy Beane would be able to demand a king’s ransom in return for the left-hander.

There is, however, an intriguing A’s right-hander that would cost a lot less, one who reported to spring training as a reclamation project but finished the year with the fifth-lowest FIP in baseball.

That would be former Rangers hurler Brandon McCarthy, who was a completely different pitcher in 2011.

Ranked as the 49th-best prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the 2005 season, McCarthy made his Major League debut later that year for the White Sox at the tender age of 21, finishing the season with 10 starts under his belt. There were no rotation openings the following year in 2006, though, and he was relegated to the bullpen for the year before being traded to the Rangers that offseason for John Danks.

It was with the Rangers where McCarthy’s career starting spiraling downward due to injuries, starting with a stress fracture in his right shoulder in 2007 that forced him to miss over two months of action. Inflammation in his throwing elbow erased nearly all of his 2008 campaign, and the shoulder pain returned in 2009. As a result, McCarthy had just 221 innings to show for himself in a Rangers uniform, and hit the disabled list three more times while playing for their Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City. Unsurprisingly, the Rangers outrighted McCarthy off of their 40-man roster at the end of the 2010 season and he became a free agent.

Then the A’s came calling with a one-year, $1 million base salary offer, and it marked the reinvention of McCarthy’s career.

After managing a career 4.56 ERA and 3.4 BB/9 in parts of five big league seasons and just 372 innings, McCarthy defied the odds in 2011 by not only setting a new career-high with 170 innings pitched but by finishing the year with a 1.13 BB/9, 3.32 ERA and an American League-low 2.86 FIP. It’s not every day that an injury-plagued hurler comes out of nowhere to set new career-bests and cut his walk rate by over 60 percent, so the numbers only tell a small part of the story.

The biggest difference McCarthy made was lowering his arm slot to take pressure away from his oft-injured throwing shoulder, since he threw directly over the top previously in his career. It’s no surprise that he had so many injuries and run-ins with the disabled list, though, since the over the top motion is quite strenuous on the shoulder.

It’s not hard to see in the image above, from Kyle Boddy’s must-read THT article, “Mechanical changes for the better?”, how effortless McCarthy’s revamped delivery is compared to his old one, especially after he plants his foot. For a full breakdown of McCarthy’s mechanical changes, definitely check out Boddy’s article.

But McCarthy didn’t just drastically change his mechanics, though, he completely altered his pitch repertoire as well.

After primarily using a four-seam fastball previously in his career, McCarthy replaced it entirely with a devastating cutter/two-seamer tandem. Through pounding the outer half of the strike zone with his fastball variations, McCarthy was able to coax hitters into chasing bad pitches outside the zone resulting in bad contact on the ball. The results speak for themselves, as McCarthy’s ground ball rate this year leaped to a career-high 46.7 percent — over seven percent higher than any other season in his career.

McCarthy’s ability to force hitters to expand their strike zone offers insight into the reason for the drop in his walk rate, his interview with FanGraphs’ Ryan Campbell reveals a lot more on the subject. It’s two parts, with the first part being about his mechanical changes and the second part being an analysis of his 2011 campaign, so make sure to check it out.

“I think before where I wasn’t sharp in the zone, I was either coming over the middle of the plate or missing wildly. Hitters were able to just zone in on one territory… versus now I’m able to command both sides of the plate and throw more strikes, it leads to a little bit less ease in a hitter’s mind. If there’s going to be a lot of strikes, you get into more of a swing mode,” McCarthy said in his FanGraphs interview.

Obviously the A’s scored quite a steal by signing McCarthy, who made just over $2 million in 2011 after incentives, last winter, but he’s arbitration-eligible and under club control for next season as well since he has less than six years of service time.

So, for the Jays, it would cost a lot less to acquire McCarthy, who technically becomes a free agent after the 2012 season. Plus, even though McCarthy had a fantastic 2011 campaign, he still made a brief trip to the disabled list this past season with yet another stress fracture in his right shoulder. That, combined with his extensive history, would limit the type of package Beane would be able to command for the 6’7″ right-hander.

McCarthy’s still only 28 years old, and given that Alex Anthopoulos has a history of working out team-friendly contract extensions, he’s an even more interesting thought. He’s still somewhat of a risk, but the reward potential is certainly there as well as we saw this past season.

Through arbitration, McCarthy should see his salary increase to something in the neighborhood of $3.5 million. If he pitches like he did with Oakland in the season’s first half, Anthopoulos could offer him a short-term contract extension as a reward, likely with a club option incorporated into it as well.

Thanks to both FanGraphs and The Hardball Times for information mentioned in this article.

-JM

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