Every spring, baseball fans are treated to a collection of stories, all some variation of the same theme. Look who gained 20 pounds! Look who lost 20 pounds! Look who spent three months kick-boxing! The theme, in case you haven't guessed, is: watch out for this guy, he really stepped up his conditioning this off-season.
Texas Rangers right-hander Brandon McCarthy has been the subject of many such articles over the past two years.
After a scapular stress fracture in 2007, McCarthy worked hard to strengthen the area around his shoulder hoping to avoid a recurrence in 2008. He even added a reported 15-20 pounds to his frame. Despite this hard work, he suffered a severe forearm strain during spring training in 2008 that caused him to miss four-plus months. Only a few starts into his return, McCarthy strained the flexor tendon in his right middle finger, shutting him down for the final two weeks of the season.
That winter, McCarthy went all out to bulk up. It was widely reported that McCarthy's 7,000-calorie daily diet helped him pack on 25 pounds. He even told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Jeff Wilson that it made him hate eating. Through the first two months of the 2009 season, it looked like McCarthy's hard work was beginning to pay off, but by the time June rolled around, McCarthy was dealing with the same shoulder pain he had felt in 2007 -- another stress fracture in his right scapula.
This year, things have been a little different. McCarthy explained to Baseball Time in Arlington, "In terms of preventing future injury, the biggest thing I did this off-season was try to rework my mechanics. Mostly trying to be more efficient in certain points in my delivery."
While on the disabled list in 2009, McCarthy began looking for ways to reduce the stress on his shoulder, which led to some pretty major mechanical changes by the time he was activated. A work in progress, McCarthy's mechanics became the main focus for his off-season.
No place is his work more evident than in his follow-through, the area I identified as the most likely cause of his scapular stress. In the past, McCarthy's follow-through took his arm up near his head before before finishing across his body toward his glove-side hip. Now, his primary arm deceleration occurs with his elbow roughly at shoulder level instead of near his head. Hopefully, the image below will help illustrate the point.
Unfortunately, since I was not able to attend spring training this year, I do not have any high-speed footage of McCarthy's new mechanics. This makes it difficult for me to be able to show you what I'm talking about.
There's a level of fluidity in his delivery now that is hard to believe based on how he used to look. Compared to his mechanics from last spring, his current mechanics are dramatically different.
His influences came from a number of places, but he wasn't operating by feel alone. "I definitely tried to incorporate certain aspects of durable, successful pitchers around the league. I'm a visual learner and pretty good at mimicking physical actions, so it's the easiest way for me to change," McCarthy explained.
This correlational approach is somewhat scientific, but correlation is no guarantee that a causal relationship exists. There is fault in assuming that someone will continue to be durable because they have been durable in the past. For example, McCarthy himself looked fairly durable until 2007, having thrown 172 innings as a 20-year-old in 2004 and 186.1 innings as a 21-year-old in 2005 before moving to the bullpen in 2006.
McCarthy adds, "This off-season I didn't put any extra emphasis into one physical area. Didn't try to bulk up, just really wanted to gain strength and get myself into the shape I need to be in. Basically, I just trusted the program Jose Vazquez put together for us and stuck to it."
As I see it, this is another positive change from McCarthy's previous off-seasons. A lot of people confuse bulking up with adding strength. While the two aren't always mutually exclusive, the human body is fully capable of getting stronger without getting bigger. Given the choice between getting big and getting strong, one hopes that most athletes would choose to get strong.
While the sky is certainly not the limit for McCarthy, there's no telling what he can do if he gets healthy. Injuries have played a huge role not just in limiting his playing time but also in his development as a starting pitcher.
Going into his fourth season with the Texas Rangers, McCarthy has accumulated only 221 innings in 44 starts and one relief appearance. During that time, McCarthy has been a roughly league-average starting pitcher despite one of the worst home run rates in the league.
To that end, McCarthy has introduced two new pitches along with his reworked mechanics. In Part II, McCarthy discusses his new stuff, and I have a look at what it could mean for his future.