There are presently few players more polarizing contained within the upper ranks of the Texas Rangers organization than the gangly 25-year-old Glendale, California native that is arguably most famous for being "the guy Jon Daniels traded John Danks away for."
But might he also ultimately go down as "the guy that cost Mark Connor his job?"
Hear me out on this.
Since the pre-Christmas Eve 2006 deal that shipped Danks, then a 21-year-old southpaw on the cusp of reaching the majors after a respectable minor league campaign split between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Oklahoma, away to the Windy City for Brandon McCarthy, then 23 years old and widely regarded as a more polished, more refined and overall more advanced young pitcher, a disturbing number of health- and performance-related setbacks have beset the Rangers' prized acquisition.
At first, it was a simply dreadful opening month to the 2007 season (20 IP, 9.90 ERA, 2.10 WHIP) that seemed to be more a product of over-anxiousness and out-of-sync pitching mechanics than anything of a truly sinister nature. Then, just as McCarthy had begun to right the ship, what at first appeared to be just an innocuous blister on his right middle finger ended up costing the talented right-hander more than a month on the 15-day disabled list.
One rehabilitation stint and one semi-successful return to the Rangers' starting rotation later, recurring pain in McCarthy's right shoulder - described at the time as "sharp" pain that was particularly noticeable when throwing breaking balls and change-ups - finally prompted the club to perform an MRI, which revealed that Brandon had been pitching for at least two months with a stress fracture in his right shoulder blade.
Once you began to connect the dots between the differing media accounts of the story, one point became disturbingly clear: the Rangers knew of McCarthy's shoulder pain - which should have been recognized immediately as a significant red warning flag - and yet evidently did not act on that information, prioritizing McCarthy's need for additional innings over his questionable health.
And after a long, hard winter of rehabilitation and preparation for a fresh start in 2008, what was at first diagnosed as a generic case of right elbow soreness with no necessary cause for alarm quickly erupted into a season-crippling diagnosis of right forearm inflammation, which has to date prevented the alluring hurler that once shut out the Rangers for 7.2 innings from throwing a single pitch in the majors this season.
Not coincidentally, McCarthy - once known for his ability to uncork low-to-mid 90s heaters and a plus curve ball with what Baseball America described before his 2005 rookie campaign as an "easily repeatable delivery" - has watched anywhere from 1.5 to 2 mph vanish from his average velocity since arriving in Texas, according to the fantastic and thoroughly in-depth pitch data supplied by Baseball Info Solutions.
Where am I going with this, you ask? You'll see soon enough.
On April 21st, 2007, pitching coach Mark Connor compared tape from McCarthy's miserable start one day earlier against the Oakland Athletics (1 IP, 4 H, 6 ER, 2 BB) with one of his outings from the previous year. His conclusion? No mechanical issues were present:
"He needs to sit back, take some deep breaths, analyze what's going on and make quality pitches," Connor said. "He's a young kid and wants to prove to everybody that this was a good trade for the Rangers. And I think he will. But he needs to relax a little bit."
Something presumably drastic occurred within the next 96 hours to radically (and I do mean radically) alter Connor's tune, because on April 25th, Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News wrote that Connor had done a complete 180-degree reversal and decided McCarthy's early struggles stemmed entirely from "a mechanical issue," and was planning to oversee an additional rainout-induced bullpen session:
It [the rainout] will give McCarthy an extra bullpen session in which to work on getting his arm and lower body more in synch. Doing that would maximize his height advantage and help him get his arm to a spot where he is releasing the ball a couple of inches closer to home plate. Those couple of inches could make a 1 or 2 mph difference.
Making that adjustment, rather than health, is the club's current focus.
It took another horrid start on April 29th before McCarthy began to employ Connor's teachings into his craft, posting a fine 3.55 ERA in five May starts before the barrage of injuries hit.
Mike Hindman's legendary "before and after" photo comparison of McCarthy in both a White Sox and a Rangers uniform created quite a buzz at the time of its publication back in April, but to his own admission did not accurately display his delivery at the same point in both photos.
Pictured below is an attempt to remedy that problem to an extent, with the first photo being identical to the one Hindman supplied, and the second photo being of McCarthy during his July 2nd, 2007 start at Fenway Park, which found the right-hander driven from the game by the Boston Red Sox after just 3.2 mediocre innings. Side by side, the two photos provide a rough, but fairly accurate portrait of Connor's alterations:
To be certain, the latter delivery does indeed "maximize his height advantage." It also minimizes the impact of his lower body, an absolutely integral component of power and velocity that McCarthy seemingly ceased to effectively utilize after he fell underneath the tutelage of Connor.
And if you're forced to compensate for that lack of lower-body power and stride with the generation of additional power elsewhere, where is that extra stress likely to wind up falling? Answer: the arm.
It's why when the inimitable Mr. Hindman implies that the onset of McCarthy's arm problems and general ineffectiveness coincided with Connor's ill-advised mechanical tinkering, I can't help but wholeheartedly agree.
Flash forward to August 2008: less than one week after reportedly serving as the major "driving force" behind the dismissals of Connor and bullpen coach Dom Chiti, team president Nolan Ryan, along with new pitching coach Andy Hawkins and new bullpen coach Jim Colborn, personally oversaw a special bullpen session in Arlington during which the Hall of Famer advised McCarthy "to use his lower body more and make his delivery more fluid."
Some particularly damning quotes from an reinvigorated McCarthy, who now believes he has finally put his mechanical issues behind him:
According to McCarthy, these mechanical issues didn't just pop up since he began his rehab assignment. He said he hasn't felt mechanically sound the past two years.
"I'm not an injury-prone guy, and I've never had any problems throwing strikes," McCarthy said.
McCarthy threw more than 40 pitches during the bullpen session, and he was noticeably excited with the results afterward. The righty had no explanation for why it took two years to make these necessary adjustments to his mechanics, but he's hoping the issues are behind him now.
"I have no idea," McCarthy said. "Maybe my mechanics weren't right, and they just kept slipping and led to a downward spiral. But at least now I'm on the way back up instead of holding steady where I was."
Since that bullpen session, McCarthy has fired 13 consecutive scoreless innings across two starts for the Oklahoma RedHawks, yielding just four hits and a pair of walks while notching 11 strikeouts and tossing 68 percent of his pitches for strikes. His most recent triumph against the Pacific Coast League's Omaha Royals at AT&T Bricktown Ballpark on Sunday evening may have already positioned him to make his first Major League start of the 2008 season later this week.
That's a whole lot of real, tangible progress in an extremely short period of time after 16 months of failure, frustration and time-consuming visits to team physician Dr. Keith Meister.
And at the end of the day, I legitimately have to wonder if Ryan didn't join the Rangers in his present capacity, realize that Connor was something of a detriment to not only McCarthy's progression but to the progression of several of the club's other young pitchers as well, and begin to personally take the bull by the horns with regard to the grooming and development of the future lifeblood of the franchise.
The primary reason cited for Connor's firing, of course, was the need for a "different voice," and I'm not going to rebut the widely held notion that Connor is a highly respected pitching coach across the game of baseball. There's a reason why his departure (as well as Chiti's) did not sit particularly well in the Rangers clubhouse, and it's going to take some time for Hawkins and Colborn to build relationships with Connor's and Chiti's former disciples.
But McCarthy, perhaps more than any other pitcher during Connor's six-year reign in Texas, exemplified what can only be termed as one of Connor's most crippling weaknesses: the apparent need to fix what ain't broken.
And if Mark Connor alone was the main difference between McCarthy remaining perpetually injured and ineffective and becoming a reliable, top-flight big league starting pitcher, then I'm glad he's gone.
Quick Hits: Josh Hamilton was walked with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday evening, but the Rays held on to win 7-4...Hank Blalock (right shoulder inflammation) will shift back to first base for the remainder of the season, with Chris Davis moving back across the diamond to third base...Ian Kinsler (strained left groin muscle) is currently day-to-day, and will be re-evaluated on Monday...Milton Bradley (stiff back) will reportedly only play in the outfield the rest of the season if an "emergency situation" arises.