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Interview: Brandon McCarthy

February 1, 2012

At the Oakland A’s FanFest I was invited to join five other bloggers in a press conference style interview of five members of the Oakland A’s organization. They were manager Bob Melvin, starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy, shortstop Cliff Pennington and outfielders Josh Reddick and Seth Smith. While all six of us asked questions, I am going to just focus on the questions I asked on this blog. I suggest readers go to Athletics Nation where the interviews in their entirety are going to be posted. Thank you to the Oakland Athletics organization for this opportunity!

Brandon McCarthy came to the A’s as a free-agent, signing on December 14th, 2010 after spending the 2010 season mostly in Oklahoma City with the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to joining the A’s McCarthy had spent time with both the Chicago White Sox (the team that drafted him) and Texas Rangers compiling a 372 2/3 innings of 3.4 WAR, 4.56 ERA, 4.92 FIP baseball with 6.1 K/9, 3.4 BB/9 and 1.3 HR/9. 2011 provided a fresh start for McCarthy and he took full advantage becoming a different pitcher, striking out 6.5 K/9 to only 1.3 BB/9 and 0.6 HR/9. Those numbers added up to an American League best 2.86 FIP and in just one season eclipsing his previous five season’s worth of WAR posting 4.7 while setting an Oakland A’s record for K/BB of 4.92. My first question for McCarthy dealt with just that,

Q: Last year you led the American League in FIP and a lot of that was due to your low walk rate, and I know you struggled with control earlier in your career. What is it that changed because you were never walking anybody this year?

A: I think it’s just confidence more than anything. If you look at my minor league rates they were all pretty well in tune with what it was last year. Something I always prided myself on was I could remember each walk – I hated them. And I remember it just slowly became a thing as I went along that walks were just a thing that I did, to the point where there were bad walks in bad situations – and it’s not just walks that show up, it’s being in a 2-1 count instead of a 1-2 count and its huge differences that are made there.

When I got to the big leagues with the stuff that I had, I found that the margin for error is a lot shorter and for once it was really the first time in years that I had failed. And I don’t think I handled it all that well and just mentally I think it becomes a struggle, you start to nibble a bit more, you lose your confidence, and once you lose your confidence it’s a hard thing to get back. So it really wasn’t until I made wholesale changes that I think I got that confidence back, where screw it, I can throw this in the zone, hit it, do anything you want to do with it and beat it into the ground. Then it was like OK I can back to where I was before and I don’t feel like I have to be as sharp.

This answer really was a good one to me, because it gave me a glimpse into the mindset of a ballplayer that doesn’t show up in box scores or advanced stats, etc. McCarthy, who of all the players we spoke to, I think spoke with the most candor, discusses what I feel is a huge impediment to success, the mental aspect of baseball, something that was discussed quite a bit in Moneyball when the more cerebral Billy Beane wanted to be more like the just go out and hit Lenny Dykstra. One thing interesting to me about speaking with all these players is how well they knew their own numbers. I suppose it makes a lot of sense after all their salaries are determined by their numbers and we all outside of professional sports can quickly summarize our accomplishments in our work environments as well, but McCarthy’s discussion of his MiLB numbers was spot on, in parts of nine MiLB seasons McCarthy has had 1.8 BB/9 (that includes his two rehab starts with the Stockton Ports this season during which he pitched ten walk-free innings). At the MLB level however the shift has been pronounced, prior to this season his lowest walk rate was his rookie year’s 2.3 when he pitched 67 innings for the eventual World Champion White Sox at the tender age of 21, reaching its high point in 2007 his first year in Arlington at 4.2 BB/9. What is interesting and to me sort of proves the confidence theory (and this foreshadows one of my next question) is this correlation:

As more balls fell in with a higher BABIP, McCarthy seemed to nibble more and the walks went up with a fairly significant correlation between the two. Which is basically a graphical explanation of what he said when he said, “screw it, I can throw this in the zone, hit it, do anything you want to do with it and beat it into the ground.” This serves as a good segue into my next question which I directed at both McCarthy and Pennington (the two were interviewed by us together but for the purpose of this blog I am presenting them separately),

Q: There’s a debate among us [bloggers] at least about whether or not pitchers can control the quality of contact on hitters. Last year, for instance, Guillermo Moscoso had a very low batting average on balls in play. Brandon, as a pitcher do you feel that you can control having a smashing line drive versus getting someone to roll over the ball in the infield?

A: I go kind of back and forth with it. There are days where I feel like I can, and there are days where I can’t which, the way my mind works, makes me believe that you can’t. But, I think command – you know I really don’t know how to answer this question I feel like sinker/cutter guys if you watch Roy [Halladay] do it, you watch the best, and you watch Cliff [Lee], and its like they get a lot of bad contact, so I think there’s something to it; the kind of stuff that you have combined with command, it’s just much much much harder for hitters to hit it, so maybe they just don’t hit it as well. But I don’t know why that doesn’t show up anywhere else and why you can’t quantify that, so I don’t really know. I just know I’ve had games where I feel like I can absolutely control it and then games where I still feel sharp and they’re gonna hit the shit out of everything hard and if they (he pointed at Pennington, meaning the fielders) aren’t there then I’m gonna give up a hundred runs, so I really don’t know.

This was the question I couldn’t wait to ask (yet I did wait to ask it because Pennington arrived late, and I wanted to hear both perspectives, when I post the Pennington interview tomorrow you will hear his interesting comments) and McCarthy didn’t disappoint as I liked him not giving a line of crap but really saying, hey I don’t know what is there. Just a really interesting response and again something that McCarthy too agrees isn’t for whatever reason explained in stats – though there are those that believe it can be.

When I first received the e-mail invitation from the A’s, McCarthy was the one I was hoping and hoping would be on the list and he did not disappoint. He was very funny, he was very bright and you could tell he was very cerebral and inquisitive with how to better himself. It reminded me of the great post on FanGraphs where Melvin described his pitchers (especially since McCarthy himself brought up Halladay) and said of McCarthy,

“He made some adjustments the last year or so. He watched some guys like Halladay — I think he watched quite a bit of them — and changed his mechanics a little bit. He lowered his arm slot a little bit and that created some more movement for him.

He’s a smart guy. He leaves no stone unturned. His preparation… he’s continually trying to get better, not only understanding his own strengths and weaknesses, but he understands the strengths and weaknesses of the hitters as well. He‘s very well prepared…

As an organization, we [use data] a lot. That said, certain guys are able to use it and some guys aren’t, at least not as much. It’s our job to be able to give information according. Guys like Brandon McCarthy want a bunch, but a guy like Gio Gonzalez maybe doesn’t need as much.”

All in all a very interesting and neat conversation about what goes into pitching MLB baseball.

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