Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 12/7/12
Recently, it was reported on a great number of occasions that the Angels had strong interest in free-agent Brandon McCarthy. The Angels wound up giving two years and $15 million to Joe Blanton, seemingly pulling them out of the running. Today, McCarthy has signed a very similar contract — one worth $15.5 million over two years, with the Diamondbacks. This is more or less the contract McCarthy was destined to end up with, and Arizona is the lucky team that gets to give it to him. This being FanGraphs, of course we’re somewhat biased where McCarthy is concerned, but it’s not bias that makes this look like a potential steal, and a probable bargain. Let’s ignore the contract breakdown and just look at the overall figures. For two years and $15.5 million, the average team would be looking to add, what, three wins over replacement? A little bit more than that? Yes, pitcher WAR has its issues, and yes, of course not every team looks to spend the same amount of money per win on the free-agent market. Efficiency is more important for some than for others. But a $15.5-million contract over two years is not a hefty contract, and you’d expect only so much of a return. McCarthy is positioned to give a better return. Over the last two years, Freddy Garcia has been worth 3.5 RA9-Wins, and 2.9 FIP-Wins. Jeremy Guthrie has been worth 3.3 and 3.2, respectively. Phil Humber has been worth 3.0 and 3.4; Mike Leake has been worth 4.0 and 3.0. This is intended to give you a frame of reference. If McCarthy were to spend the next two years pitching like those guys, he’d earn this deal, and there’s compelling reason to believe he can do better than that. Most simply, over the last two years, McCarthy has been worth 6.0 RA9-Wins, and 6.6 FIP-Wins, with basically the same ERA, FIP, and xFIP as Josh Johnson. That was accomplished over 43 starts, with McCarthy’s most recent season of course being brought to a premature end by a comebacker to the skull. McCarthy has established himself as an effective starter when he’s on the mound, and though his health is a clear and constant concern, at least it’s fairly well understood. The Diamondbacks are paying McCarthy to be about half as valuable over the next two years as he was over the last two years. McCarthy’s an odd duck, in that he just recently had brain surgery, and yet that’s not the issue that makes organizations nervous. McCarthy’s head should be just fine, with no meaningful performance-relevant consequences. It’s his shoulder that’s always acting up and costing him innings each season. People know that Brandon McCarthy is probably good for a DL stint a year, because of his chronic shoulder problems. That’s not going to go away. That’s in large part why McCarthy signed for two years instead of something longer — teams are risk-averse, and they don’t like to get caught making extended commitments to players they know will get hurt. But you sign McCarthy knowing full well about his shoulder, meaning you can theoretically stay on top of it and limit any negative consequences. Handled well, McCarthy’s shoulder won’t cost him in terms of rate results; it’ll just cost him in terms of counting results, and you can expect that going into things. One does have to note that McCarthy regressed in 2012 from his outstanding statistical 2011. He threw fewer strikes, he struck out fewer batters, he walked more batters, and he generated fewer groundballs. It’s probable that 2011 is going to be McCarthy’s career peak when it’s all said and done. The regression was mostly all results against left-handed hitters. But in terms of stuff, McCarthy wasn’t meaningfully different between the seasons, as he threw the same pitches with the same movements and velocities, and what 2011 probably does is establish something of a performance ceiling. Given McCarthy as a pitcher, you expect certain results, with error bars on either side. Toward the top of the upper error bar, you’d find 2011. McCarthy’s good, but just not quite that good. Off the top of my head, he’s a #3, who can pitch like a #2. Kevin Towers has been looking for a #3 or a #2. A few days ago, he said: “To me, it seems like some of the second-tier guys are kind of starting to be viewed as first-tier-type guys and being paid like first-tier guys, and I don’t think we’re willing to go there,” Towers said. “That’s why we’re not talking to a lot of free agents in the way of pitching.” When McCarthy is healthy, he can pitch like a second-tier guy, and because of his question marks, he isn’t getting paid like a first-tier guy, or even necessarily like a second-tier guy. McCarthy fits exactly what Towers wanted, and now he’ll boost a deep Diamondbacks rotation that might not even have room for Trevor Bauer. McCarthy was available for this contract because teams viewed him as a risk, and because teams like the idea of health and consistency and reliability, but teams acted so risk-averse that McCarthy came in lower than he probably should have. If Brandon McCarthy is his 2012 self, this is a good contract, even given a couple DL stints provided they aren’t too long. If he’s somewhere in between his 2011 and his 2012, he’s a steal if he starts 40 or 50 times. Even if injuries wipe out a whole season, McCarthy’s capable of earning this money in one year, and he’s being paid for two. I don’t know how many more ways I can say “this seems like it is smart for the Diamondbacks.” McCarthy could suck. Anybody could suck. McCarthy could get badly injured. Anybody could get badly injured. Based on what we know right now, McCarthy probably deserves a good deal more money than the Diamondbacks are giving him. That’s why the Diamondbacks should come away from this awful pleased.
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