Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/19/14
You’re familiar with the term “contract year” because there exists a belief that some players perform better the season before they hit free agency. Playing for a new contract allegedly serves as a motivator. Obviously, pre-free-agency performance matters, and the most recent performance matters the most. A player should want to go into free agency on a high note. A player should really try to avoid going into free agency on a low note. For like a whole bunch of reasons actually. One guy who’s going into free agency on a low note is Jose Valverde. Just one year ago — just one year ago! — Valverde converted all 49 of his save opportunities and ran a near-2 ERA. He blew his very first save opportunity of 2012. His 2012 season wasn’t a disaster, but it was in the playoffs, when he allowed nine runs in four games. Teams are now going to be understandably nervous about Jose Valverde’s future prospects. Another guy who’s going into free agency on a low note is Brandon McCarthy. Doctors recently had to cut into his head. On talent, the best free-agent starting pitcher available is Zack Greinke, and there’s not a lot of question about that. He’s the only (borderline) ace, but behind him there’s an appealing second tier, ranging from, I don’t know, Hiroki Kuroda to Shaun Marcum. Anibal Sanchez is going to get paid. Kyle Lohse is going to get paid, and on and on. Brandon McCarthy is going to get paid, too, and one wonders by whom, and for how much. The part we know is that Brandon McCarthy has been good. He was a little less good in 2012 than he was in 2011, but we’re all smart enough not to worry about single seasons. Over the last two years — after McCarthy changed himself as a pitcher — he threw 30 more innings than Josh Johnson. He posted exactly the same ERA as Josh Johnson. He posted exactly the same FIP as Josh Johnson. He posted an xFIP three-hundredths of a point higher than Josh Johnson’s. In terms of performance, Brandon McCarthy has had a lot in common with Josh Johnson. Doug Fister, too, and other guys. The Johnson comp is just the freakiest. So on performance, McCarthy is worth $X million as a free agent. The other part we know is that the last time Brandon McCarthy pitched off a mound in a game, he sustained a traumatic brain injury. He suffered a concussion, and he underwent surgery to relieve intracranial pressure caused by bleeding. Surgeons had to drill through Brandon McCarthy’s skull. He’s recovered, and just the other day he was cleared to resume all baseball activities. But still, between his most recent appearance and his becoming a free agent, Brandon McCarthy had brain surgery. What I’m most curious about is what that means for McCarthy’s market. McCarthy didn’t undergo season-ending surgery on his shoulder, or his elbow, or his hip, or even his back. This wasn’t a usual pitching injury that he had, and the overwhelming odds are that McCarthy will be just fine on the other end. I certainly don’t intend to dismiss the McCarthy incident as insignificant, but it seems to me it probably shouldn’t color one’s evaluation of him as a starting pitcher. What happened to him isn’t exactly chronic. McCarthy isn’t unusually prone to getting hit in the head by line drives. It happened, and it should be completely behind him. But then, teams can’t just ignore what happened. Can they? There was a concussion. Some players have trouble coming back from concussions and performing normally. And McCarthy underwent brain surgery. Brain surgery has “brain” right in it and the brain’s kind of a big deal for athletes and regular people and regular animals. Then there are potential psychological consequences, one might imagine. McCarthy got severely injured doing his job, and it’s not inconceivable that that could affect how he does his job. It isn’t likely, and I’m guessing McCarthy would deny it, but it isn’t not a consideration. McCarthy already has a red flag, owing to his chronic shoulder issues. Teams already knew that about him and everyone’s getting a better idea of what it means and how it can be managed. The shoulder thing is just part of the Brandon McCarthy equation, and it’s somewhat well understood. The head injury is also now part of the equation, and it’s less understood, even though it seems like it shouldn’t really matter at all. We probably won’t be able to learn much from the contract that McCarthy ends up signing, because he represents a sample size of one. This is a thought experiment because it’s not something we’ll ever be able to observe in real life. Say there are 100 Brandon McCarthys. Of those, 50 are clones of the current Brandon McCarthy. The other 50 are clones of the current Brandon McCarthy, but without the head injury. The line drive just missed, and McCarthy kept on pitching through the end of the season. We’ll refer to the first group as Group A, and to the second group as Group B. On average, Group B signs a free-agent contract worth $X million. On average, Group A signs a free-agent contract worth $Y million. Is $Y million equal to $X million? If not, what is the difference? How much lower is Y than X? That’s what I most want to know, and that’s what I never will know, but I’m curious to see what some of you guys think. If you’re a GM, and you’re choosing between two identical free-agent pitchers, one of whom sustained a season-ending head injury, all else being equal you’ll prefer the guy who didn’t have the head injury. Of course; that’s just one fewer question mark. But what is the value of that question mark? Is it a strong preference, or a weak preference? You’ll always take the guy without the head injury every single time, but what if he costs $100,000 more? Now I’m just repeating the question in different ways. Dave Cameron identified McCarthy as a potential good free-agent value. McCarthy is going to get through all his usual offseason workouts. Interested teams will all very thoroughly review his medicals. McCarthy was recently bleeding in his brain. This year’s pool of free agents is just overflowing with players of unusual interest.
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