On November 29th, 2004, industry publication Baseball America published the following upbeat assessment of then-21-year-old right-hander Brandon McCarthy's burgeoning repertoire:
McCarthy’s best pitch is a two-seam fastball that generally parks around 90 mph, and he has a four-seamer that hits 92-93. He also has a plus curveball. His height allows him to deliver pitches on a steep downward plane, and he throws strikes at will with an easily repeatable delivery.
After retiring from his first outing of the young Cactus League season on Saturday afternoon (a game which the Texas Rangers ultimately won by a 6-4 margin), Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram disclosed that the the most upside-laden, most tantalizing and yet most maddening hurler in the major league starting rotation had scrapped his trademark "plus" mid-70s curve -- in favor of a brand-new slider, ostensibly designed to "take load off his elbow."
My immediate reaction to this development was naturally one of confusion, namely because McCarthy's explanation did not at all conform with a personal notion that was implanted nearly six months ago by respected pitching instructor Dr. John Bagonzi in the first part of his three-part Q&A with friend and BBTiA co-writer Jason Parks:
Curveballs are less stressful on the arm than sliders because of the deceleration of the arm on release. However, one has to be aware of losing arm speed on their fastball if too many curveballs are thrown. A curveball should precede a slider in the learning business.
Full disclosure: My overall knowledge base with respect to the science of pitching and, more specifically, the assorted pros and cons of both the curveball and the slider does not even begin to compare with that of TexasLeaguers.com's Trip Somers, who did a superb job of articulating his thoughts on the potential ramifications of McCarthy's off-season decision to pack on 25 pounds back on January 30th. That said, it is my understanding that one of the inherent dangers of the slider health-wise is that so many pitchers throw it incorrectly, thus exposing themselves to a litany of potential arm problems both in the present and in the future.
Now, the upgrade in pitching coaches from Mark Connor -- who deftly spun a web of McCarthy-related contradictions in April 2007 and summarily implemented changes in his delivery that almost certainly played a role in the rapid deterioriation of his health -- to the universally respected Mike Maddux has been substantial by virtually all written and spoken accounts. Maddux arrived in Texas equipped with no preconceived notions on how to best handle the squadron of hurlers placed under his supervision, and while he has been aggressive in instituting the practice of his pitchers throwing live batting practice and adamant in his desire to see his pitchers throw more long toss, the most refreshing aspect of the Maddux acquisition has been the ensuing commitment to individually tailored pitching instruction at the major league level.
The bottom line is that I simply cannot fathom McCarthy undertaking such a dramatic alteration to his well-established fastball-curveball-change-up repertoire without Maddux first green-lighting it, and if you're a believer in Maddux's vision for this organization's latest crop of pitching talent and his knack for instilling quality instruction (and at this point, I don't think we really have any other choice but to place our faith in Maddux), then the logical assumption is that McCarthy will employ a mechanically sound slider that will not exponentially increase his acquired exposure to the injury bug.
It's also possible that there are more factors in play here than initially meet the eye; consider, for instance, that McCarthy retroactively pinpointed his curveball as an "extremely unreliable" pitch during the 2007 season last spring while flatly stating that it was an offering he had to begin consistently throwing for strikes. He eventually assimilated a "retooled" and "sharp and tight" version of the curveball into his pitching repertoire towards the end of the 2007 season, but was afforded few opportunities to employ it during live games before being stricken by severe right forearm inflammation last February; embedded below is video from McCarthy's September 20th, 2007 start against the Orioles (the last of his 2007 campaign), which showcases the curveball at the eight-second mark:
[Direct link available here.]
McCarthy threw just 374 pitches in his five starts late last season, and thus the sample sizes are not at all statistically significant, but what we can glean from the limited Pitch f/x data compiled on his work last season is that he was more reluctant to throw the curveball outside of pitchers' counts (e.g. 0-1, 0-2 and 1-2) than he was the previous year -- something which isn't necessarily reflective of a lack of confidence in the pitch, but which might well indicate that he felt he needed a second off-speed offering that he could rely on for strikes in tough situations besides the change-up. If this new slider is that off-speed offering, and if it doesn't come at the sake of his health, then why not?
It might just be one pitch, but it's also one pitch that could conceivably help or hinder one of the organization's most important players in the age-25-and-under demographic, and it's yet another intriguing aspect of the unique 2009 regular season storyline that the Rangers will begin to bring to life on April 6th.
Quick Hits: Outfielder Josh Hamilton (strained left Achilles' tendon) is currently day-to-day ... Right-hander Pedro Strop is ahead of his timetable for recovery from a stress fracture in his right elbow sustained last season, and could appear in an 'A' game this spring ... Left-hander A.J. Murray is being groomed as a reliever, with the goal of keeping his balky shoulder healthy.