Game 160, Athletics at Mariners
Jason Vargas vs. Brandon McCarthy, 7:10pm
The M’s season mercifully comes to an end with a three-game series against fellow punching bags, the Oakland A’s. Like the M’s, the A’s have a terrible offense and a solid pitching staff; the A’s FIP is just slightly better than the Mariners’. This won’t shock anyone – pitching was supposed to be the strength of both teams back in March. But while the M’s staff’s been led by the deliciously consistent Felix Hernandez, the A’s are enjoying an out-of-the-blue 5 win season from… Brandon McCarthy.
Coming into the year, McCarthy was an oft-injured journeyman, a fly-baller with so-so command, mediocre velocity and a rare shoulder condition that leaves him vulnerable to stress fractures. He signed a one-year free agent deal with Oakland for $1m and set about reinventing himself. Of course, stories about pitchers tweaking their mechanics in spring training are the new, more detailed twists on the hoary old “best shape of his life” cliche. He was going to ditch his four-seamer and pitch to contact with a sinker and cutter, apparently, and he’d lower his arm angle to ease the wear and tear on his shoulder. Evidently, some small fraction of those spring training stories are significant.
He’s more than halved his walk rate while improving his K rate. His new sinker’s greatly improved his ground-ball rate, which has helped him control HRs. His new cutter’s a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch, and to top it all off, he’s throwing harder than ever before. The cutter’s particularly interesting to me. It appears he’s throwing it much more often than gameday’s algorithm thinks (it’s hard to distinguish it from a four-seamer), and he’s generating whiffs and keeping it low in the zone. It all culminates in one of the unlikeliest great seasons in recent memory, and yes, I know that Doug Fister *also* has 5 wins. Brandon McCarthy, the Brandon McCarthy many thought was a bust and AAAA roster filler, leads the American League in FIP.
In some ways, McCarthy’s emergence is bad for the M’s. He plays for a divisional rival (though it was only a one-year deal! Jack – call his agent!) after all. But the takeaway for me is that large-scale transformation is possible, and it’s possible a lot quicker than many of us thought. That’s not exactly earth-shattering to fans of the team that employs Steve Delabar, but I think many of us view a pitcher’s skillset as essentially fixed. A guy’s a fastball-curve guy who gets fly balls, or he’s a sinker-slider-grounder guy, and you can’t go from one bucket to the next. That’s still largely true, but McCarthy offers proof that it’s not a hard and fast rule. The M’s *need* to get more out of the raw talent they have in the system, and someone in Pedro Grifol’s shop really needs to study this test case.
The M’s line-up:
5: Smoak (1B)