If you’ve played fantasy baseball for any significant portion of the past ten years, you’ve probably owned Brandon McCarthy at some point. He’s one of those pitchers (Rich Harden and A.J. Burnett also come to mind) who has never had a superlative season, has rarely performed at much above replacement level; yet he possesses such apparent “potential,” and flashes it with just enough regularity, that among any group of 10-12 baseball fans, there’s bound to be somebody who’s enamored with him.
Even in 2014 there have been such glimpses, though it has been thus far, at least superficially, the worst season (.231 WPCT, 5.01 ERA) of McCarthy’s underwhelming career. Yet, few 3-10 pitchers from cellar-dwelling teams have racked up twelve strikeouts in a start or thrown eight innings of two-hit ball against a potent lineup. McCarthy lost his first five decisions, as well as ten of his first eleven, yet amidst all that, he put together one stretch of 19 innings with a 1.42 ERA and 11.4 K/9 and another stretch of 18 innings with a 1.00 ERA and 10.0 K/9. Between those two stretches, the White Sox torched him for seven earned runs in three and a third.
McCarthy began his career as a much-heralded 21-year-old prospect on the South Side. During the White Sox serendipitous 2005 Championship season, McCarthy, who dominated Spring Training, was the source of constant “should they or shouldn’t they” speculation on Chicago sports radio. Think Phil Hughes circa 2007. Yet, befitting the comparison, the White Sox spent two years bouncing McCarthy back and forth between AAA, the major-league rotation, and the bullpen. Seemingly incapable of committing to him, the Sox made him the centerpiece of a trade for John Danks prior to the ’07 season.
McCarthy’s four seasons in Texas were filled with misfortune, both on and off the field. He joined a stable of young pitching prospects (C. J. Wilson, Derek Holland, Edison Volquez, Matt Harrison, Tommy Hunter, Scott Feldman, Neftali Feliz) competing for only a few spots on the MLB roster. Many had better pedigrees and more familiarity with the Rangers coaching staff. McCarthy continued to bounce around, his main weakness, a propensity for the long ball, being exacerbated by the Rangers home park. Even when he put together a quality stretch, an injury would sideline him and by the time he returned, another pitcher would be entrenched in the rotation. Injuries eventually forced him to miss the entirety of 2010, after which he entered free agency.
Still, he was just 26 years old, he had shown his characteristic flashes of brilliance, even while pitching in unfriendly confines. McCarthy was a prototypical low-risk, high-reward target for Billy Beane and the Athletics, who signed him for 2 years and $5 Million. He outperformed his salary by about 500%. Between 2011 and 2012 McCarthy made 43 starts, compiled a 3.29 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and a 4.0 K/BB rate. Unfortunately, a gruesome comebacker ended his season in September of 2012 and, though he helped the A’s make the playoffs, McCarthy still has yet to register a postseason inning.
After reestablishing his value in Oakland, McCarthy signed his current deal (2 yr., $18 Mil.) with the D-Backs, perhaps unwisely returning to a bandbox ballpark. That said, his poor record and ERA is quite misleading. His FIP has remained consistent over the last three seasons (always between 3.75 and 3.79) and, in 2014, he has the best strikeout rate of his career (7.6 K/9) and second-best K/BB (4.65). Most importantly, considering the Yankees needs, he has not missed a start and has logged 6+ IP twelve times.
At 30 years old, it may be hard to imagine McCarthy every equalling or eclipsing his relatively modest peak in Oakland, but a return to anything near that level would make him easily the Yankees #2 starter.