This Year’s Phil Hughes Will Be Brandon McCarthy

When preparing for a new season, fantasy baseball enthusiasts are always wanting to know who is going to be the next big breakout player.  Drafting or picking up a player on waivers for his breakout season gives fantasy owners a feeling of superiority, a feeling of omniscience in some sense.  Whether that feeling is justified or not is another question.  But even if your team comes in last place, you can take ownership that you “knew” Jose Bautista would bust out for 54 HR, or that your hunch that R.A. Dickey would knuckle his way into a Cy Young Award panned out.  So at The Backwards K, there is a series of posts titled “This Year’s…” where I will tell you who I think this year’s version of a 2014 breakout player will be, providing some background and analysis.

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Phil Hughes was drafted in the 1st round (23rd overall) by the Yankees in 2004 and he absolutely decimated Minor League hitters to make him one of the highest rated and most anticipated pitching prospects of the 2000’s.  Armed with a devastating curveball, Hughes made his Major League debut in April of the 2007 season as a 20-year old after the Yankees rotation was plagued by injuries.  In his second Major League start, he displayed exactly why he was so highly touted, as he was in the midst of a no-hitter after 6 and 1/3 innings before he was forced from the game with a hamstring injury.  Hughes was placed on the DL and he had a long recovery time, but he eventually returned to the Yankees and completed his rookie season showing flashes of brilliance but also showing that he had a lot of areas to improve upon.  However, in the next six seasons with the Yankees from 2008-13, Hughes failed to resemble anything that looked like a player that was once considered the top pitching prospect in the game.  Through the 2013 season, Hughes had a career line of 56 W-50 L, 4.54 ERA, and 1.32 WHIP to go along with 7.57 K/9 and 2.83 BB/9.  Despite those very mediocre statistics and coming off the worst season of his career, Hughes managed to land himself a 3-year/$24 million deal with the pitching starved Twins in the off-season leading up to the 2014 season.  Yeah, league average (or worse) baseball players get paid way too much, which makes me think that I should be playing professional baseball rather than writing about it.  If only I could throw a curveball, or hit one for that matter…

Hughes moving from Yankee Stadium to the much friendlier confines of Target Field in Minnesota was certainly a much more appealing situation, but in 2014 he actually pitched much better on the road than at home.  At Target Field, Hughes had a 4.25 ERA while giving up 11 HR.  On the road, Hughes managed a 2.78 ERA while only allowing 5 HR.  So if it wasn’t the home park that aided a breakout season for Hughes, what was it?  It was all about control.  Hughes amazingly issued only 16 free passes on the season and paired with his 186 strikeouts, he set an all-time single-season record for best K/BB ratio at 11.63 K/BB.  Also playing a positive factor might have been the reintroduction of his cutter and the scrapping of his slider.  Hughes threw a cutter regularly from 2009-11, but in 2012-13 it was nearly non-existent and he had used a slider instead.  But last year, the slider was gone and the cutter was back in full effect and at the highest usage of his career, and for the first time the cutter had a positive pitch value for him.  Overall, Hughes finished his age 28 season with a record of 16-10, 3.52 ERA, and 1.13 WHIP.  This was the first time in his career that Hughes posted an ERA under 4.00 and a WHIP under 1.25.  Better late than never, right?

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For the pitcher to be this year’s version of Hughes, I am looking for someone who already has good control that could experience an even better improvement in that area, which (amongst other things) could lead to a career best season.  I believe the best candidate for this type of breakout is Brandon McCarthy, one of the newest members of the Dodgers.  McCarthy has been around the Majors for quite some time now and he experienced his fair share of struggles early in his career like Hughes did.  Not only did McCarthy display an underwhelming performance from 2005-10 in the White Sox and Rangers organizations, but he had an extremely difficult time staying healthy as he failed to top 120 innings pitched in any of those seasons.

McCarthy caught on with the A’s for the 2011 season and that began a new chapter in the right-handed hurler’s career.  In his first season wearing the Oakland green and yellow, McCarthy had a career best season going 9-9 with a 3.32 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 6.49 K/9, and 1.32 BB/9 in 170 IP.  The following year also with the A’s, he was able to deliver a similar performance when he took the mound, but he was only healthy enough to pitch 111 innings over 18 starts and his season was cut short by a gruesome scene where his head got nailed by a line drive comebacker.  But the new found success that McCarthy had in Oakland was directly correlated to the discovery of his cutter.  Prior to his time with Oakland, McCarthy had never thrown a pitch classified as a cutter as the Major League level.  But it suddenly became his go-to pitch with Oakland, as he threw it 36.4% of the time in 2011 and 39.7% of the time in 2012.  This pitch generated a lot of groundballs for McCarthy, so he was able to keep the ball in the park (and in the infield) with much greater consistency.

In 2013, McCarthy signed with the Diamondbacks and he seemingly failed to continue the type of success that he had with the A’s.  However, the poorer performance in the 2013 season (5-11, 4.53 ERA and 1.35 WHIP) could be attributed to the fact that he had to deal with a seizure issue that was related to the head injury he suffered the previous season.  But with a clean bill of health for the 2014 season, he pitched even worse for the Diamondbacks.  Before being traded to the Yankees in a mid-season trade, McCarthy was 3-10 with a 5.01 ERA and 1.38 WHIP for the Diamondbacks.  One might have been quick to just assume that was the real McCarthy and the type of pitcher that was going to show up from that point forward.  But do you remember what the key to McCarthy’s success was in the best seasons of his career while he was in Oakland?  You should remember considering that you just read it 15 seconds ago, but I’ll tell you again that the cutter was his moneymaker.

Well, last season the Diamondbacks suddenly did not allow McCarthy to throw his cutter.  Whether the team felt that throwing the cutter made him more susceptible to injury or not, it was blasphemous for a non-contending team to take away the greatest weapon of a pitcher that was not even under contract for the following season.  So upon being traded to don the pinstripes, the Yankees gave McCarthy the thumbs up to resume using the cutter.  The cutter is to McCarthy as the hammer is to Thor.  McCarthy made 14 starts for the Yankees and went 7-5 with a 2.89 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 8.17 K/9, and 1.30 BB/9.  Overall, McCarthy’s 2014 line was 10-15 with a 4.05 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 7.88 K/9, 1.49 BB/9 in 200 IP.  The W-L record, ERA, and WHIP are not the prettiest of numbers, but we now know that overall line is fairly deceptive.

Another thing to take away from McCarthy’s 2014 season is that his velocity increased a lot from the previous years.  From 2011-13, McCarthy’s average fastball clocked in at just under 91.0 MPH, but last year he was able to dial up his average fastball to 92.9 MPH.  His cutter also saw a bump from about 90.0 MPH to 91.0 MPH.  With an increase in velocity, pitchers will usually generate more strikeouts and that is precisely what McCarthy did as his 7.88 K/9 was way above his previous career high of 6.49 K/9.

If he can maintain this velocity bump and stay off the DL, McCarthy appears to be in a great position to have the best year of his career.  He already is one of the best control pitchers in the league, so it would be no surprise if he posted a Hughes-ian walk rate this year.  And something else in McCarthy’s favor is that he signed with the Dodgers over the off-season.  So he goes from pitching his home games at hitter havens Chase Field and Yankee Stadium to now calling pitcher friendly Dodger Stadium his home.  And not only should his home ballpark help him out, but the new Dodgers front office regime led by Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi have constructed a very much improved defense.  Up the middle of the infield, Hanley Ramirez (-10.3 UZR in 2014) and Dee Gordon (-3.2 defensive rating in 2014) are gone and have been replaced with Jimmy Rollins (3.7 UZR in 2014) and Howie Kendrick (6.7 UZR in 2014).  That type of infield upgrade should be very significant for McCarthy and his groundball inducing cutter.

2014 Phil Hughes stats:  16 W-10 L, 3.52 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 186 K, 16 BB in 209.2 IP

2015 Brandon McCarthy projection:  14 W-9 L, 3.02 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 150 K, 29 BB in 188 IP

ʞonfidence Rating:  4ʞ out of 10ʞ

Other candidates to be “This Year’s Phil Hughes”:  Nate Eovaldi, Brett Anderson, Tommy Milone, Vance Worley

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