The Real Brandon McCarthy

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The newest Yankee makes his debut tonight, with Brandon McCarthy on the mound for his first-ever start in “slimming” pinstripes (yeah, I know its a road game, so he’ll be in road grays, but you get the idea).

A cursory glance at his 2014 season stats makes you wonder why Brian Cashman would ever trade for McCarthy, who is 3-10 with a 5.01 ERA in 18 starts and was leading the NL in hits and earned runs allowed before moving to the junior circuit.

However, a deeper look at his repertoire and peripherals reveal a pitcher that is an upgrade at the back of the rotation with some upside to help the Yankees make a real push for the playoffs this season.

The Good
In general, pitchers can directly impact two things (ignoring defense and ballparks): walks and strikeouts. Just looking at these elements he can control, McCarthy is having one of the best seasons of his career.

McCarthy’s strikeout rate (20.0%) is a career-best, and his walk rate (4.3%) ranks seventh among all MLB pitchers this season. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.65), a good measure of pitcher’s command of the strike zone, ranks ninth in baseball.

BRANDON McCARTHY NOTABLE STATS

ERA FIP xFIP K% BB%
2014 5.01 3.80 2.89 20.0% 4.3%
Career 4.21 4.07 4.09 16.2% 6.1%

McCarthy also has another key pitching skill that puts him in elite company – the ability to generate a lot of grounders. His groundball rate of 56.4 percent ranks eigth in the majors.

Putting it all together – the strikeouts, walks and grounders – and McCarthy is truly in a select group of pitchers this season. The only other pitcher with a groundball rate above 50 percent, a strikeout rate of at least 20 percent and a walk rate below five percent is… Felix Hernandez.

The Bad
So what exactly has led to an ERA above five? He has a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .347 that is the fifth-highest in the majors and is more than 50 points above his career average.

While the Yankees defense can hardly be considered elite, it is better at converting batted balls into outs than the Diamondbacks this season. So we can expect McCarthy to allow fewer hits as a Yankee than he did to start the season.

McCarthy sideA groundball-heavy pitcher would not seem to be an ideal fit for a Yankees infield defense that has already cost the team 11 runs this season. However, the infield is showing some signs of improvement recently.

Over the last month, the Yankees have converted roughly 76 percent of grounders into outs, ranked 12th in the majors. During the first two-plus months of the season, the Yankees ranked 25th in MLB in turning groundballs into outs.

McCarthy has also been prone to the longball, averaging 1.2 homers per nine innings, which puts him among the bottom 10 percent of pitchers in MLB – yet still better than Vidal Nuno (1.7).

However, he seems to have run into some bad luck this season. His flyball rate in 2014 is the lowest of his career and the second-lowest in the majors. Yet one of every five flyballs he allows has left the ballpark, a rate that is double his career mark and is the highest ratio in all of baseball.

The Ugly
Yes, there is definitely room for some home-run regression here, but that 20 percent homer-to-flyball rate is not entirely due to bad luck.

McCarthy is getting hit hard, really hard. His average flyball distance of 286 feet is the third-longest in the majors and his hard-hit rate (percent of at-bats ending in a “hard-hit” ball) of 18 percent is the 11th-highest in MLB.

So all those strikeouts and groundballs are great, but when McCarthy does serve up a hanging curveball or a sinker that doesn’t sink over the middle of the plate, hitters are doing a lot of damage. Those mistake pitches have really hurt him.

A move to the Bronx also might not help bring down that high home run rate. While both Yankee Stadium and Chase Field are both considered hitter-friendly parks, Yankee Stadium is the easiest ballpark to hit a home run in this season, according to ESPN.com’s Park Factors (Chase Field ranks 7th).

The Real McCarthy
The most popular ERA estimators – FIP (3.80) and xFIP (2.89) – suggest that McCarthy should have an ERA at least 1-2 runs lower than his current mark of 5.01 and indicate he’ll likely post a better ERA going forward.

How “unlucky” has McCarthy been this season? The difference of 2.12 runs between his ERA and xFIP (a fielding-independent ERA estimator that uses a normalized home run rate) is the highest among all qualified pitchers.

Although not all of McCarthy’s high ERA is due to bad luck, it’s clear that he is a better pitcher than the numbers on the back of his baseball card.

His combination of a league-average strikeout rate, top-10 walk rate and top-10 groundball rate – three pitching skills that are highly valued – puts him in elite company and certainly gives him a greater chance of helping the Yankees at the back of the rotation than Nuno or Chase Whitley.

Former ESPN researcher; forever baseball and Yankees fan. Now living in northern Vermont and the color of the front door of our house is Yankee blue. Also write about college football and basketball and the NFL. Bleed Huskies blue (that's UConn, of course).