T.J. McFarland was a surprising addition to the Orioles roster. Many thought he might not make the club as there was seemingly a plethora of pitching depth at the beginning of the season. Of course, we all know how that usually works out. McFarland made the club and he has seen success. At this time (6/27/13), he has compiled admirable numbers in 41.1 innings with a 4.14 ERA, 3.59 FIP and 3.69 xFIP. However, I am not here to drive the optimism train.
I have seen many talk about how McFarland should get an opportunity to start. While I would not be opposed if he was given a spot start here and there, I do not think he should be thrown into a starting role for an expanded amount of time. McFarland is a fine pitcher, but that does not necessarily mean he will become an effective starter. Just ask Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz how difficult it is. I am not saying that it’s impossible for McFarland to make it as a starter, but there are a few reasons why I believe his best role is exactly where he is right now.
1. Velocity and Arsenal
Let me just get this one out of the way to start. Velocity is not everything, but it certainly plays a large role in the success of a pitcher. McFarland throws his fastball anywhere between 87-90 mph on a typical night. The average velocity of a fastball right now in MLB is 90.39 mph.
I reached out to Alan Nathan, who is a physics and baseball expert from the University of Illinois. You can find his terrific work here. I asked him what the difference was in a hitters’ reaction time against different ranges of velocity:
Assuming a release point at 55 ft. from home plate, here are the flight times to the front edge of home plate for different release speeds:
75 – 0.516
80 – 0.484
85 – 0.455
90 – 0.430
95 – 0.407
100 – 0.387
As you can see, McFarland typically gives hitters between 0.430 and 0.455 seconds to react since he throws his fastball 87-90 mph. This is an educated guess, as I simply do not have the tools to interpolate the actual time it takes for McFarland’s pitch to arrive at the plate against hitters. Nonetheless, Mr. Nathan has provided us with a pretty accurate sense of how velocity might affect the reaction time of the hitter at the plate. It is no secret that faster velocity is generally better, but that does not necessarily mean it is more effective. A pitcher still needs to rely on changing speeds, commanding their fastball, and being able to hit their spots and show good control.
On that note, McFarland also uses a slider and change in his arsenal. The change comes in at an average of 81.9 mph, which is a roughly 6-8 mph difference from his fastball. That is not a drastic difference, but he does a good job commanding both his fastball and change to offset this. His slider is long and sweeping, coming in at an average of 79.2 mph. It’s an effective pitch against LHH, but it also the reason for many of his struggles. He hangs it fairly often and has given up most of his damage on it. He has thrown 145 sliders in 2013, and hitters have a .378 average against it. But the eye test also tells us that this pitch can really be effective as it dips down and away from lefties. But the slider is hard to set up, because you usually do not get away with it unless you are ahead in the count. MLB hitters are usually disciplined enough to not swing at it on 1-0 and 2-0 counts. That limits his arsenal a little bit, especially when behind in the count. Which leads me to my next topic…
2. The ability to work multiple times through a lineup
Pitching is really, REALLY hard. I cannot even begin to illustrate how tough it is to be effective every fifth day, let alone through a whole game. MLB is filled with the best hitters in the world. They are smart (for the most part… I’m looking at you Jose Canseco) and they have good baseball instincts. A good hitter will be able to recognize a pitch sequence that has already been used. The best hitters in MLB will not only be able to do that, but pick up on velocity, and alter their reaction times to the pitcher. This is where a deep arsenal comes into play for a starter. Plenty of pitchers use three or four pitches as a starter, but they usually have one or two pitches that are rated plus. Without a plus pitch you have to rely solely on command, changing speeds, and sequencing. McFarland is one of those pitchers that will need to rely on those three things. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it really makes it tougher to start.
Just to put this in perspective:
The first time through a lineup, hitters are batting .254/.312/.386 with a .697 OPS against McFarland.
The second time through a lineup, hitters are batting .297/.341/.486 with a .828 OPS.
The second time through a lineup typically brings a bump in numbers for most pitchers, but this is a bigger jump than most and I would not want to see what would happen the third time through the lineup.
3. The book is out on a pitcher after a number of starts.
There is that old saying, “Looks like the book is out on him now”. Well, that saying is actually valid. In today’s game, there is so much technology used that teams have a great understanding of everything that is coming at them. There are only so many sequences that a pitcher can throw throughout a season. Hitters and managers have every single pitch, every single sequence down to a science. Sabermetrics, advanced statistics, graphs, charts, etc. They know what is coming for the most part.
It is the job of the pitcher to either fool them or continue to be as close to perfect as they can possibly be. McFarland is walking a tightrope with an average arsenal, and the league will shortly have the book on him as a starter. I couldn’t tell you how long that would take, but it usually does not take long nowadays. His command and control will need to continually be strong. Once again, it has been done before, but it is tough to get by in this league. Exposure is the king of baseball. It’s only a matter of time until every single player is exposed at some level. Only the truly great players linger on with no casualties.
4. Right-Handed Hitters
Lefty pitchers usually have their way with lefty hitters. It just seems natural, and we love to call pitchers a LOOGY (Lefty One Out Guy). With McFarland, he would be a really solid LOOGY. But what about righties?
In 2013, RHH are batting .270/.342/.360. Not terrible, but a far cry from his .246/.278/.471 line against LHH. The reason I think McFarland struggles against RHH is that his slider is not nearly as effective against them. This leads to him relying on changing speeds with his fastball and change, which I noted earlier did not have the biggest difference in velocity. This also could be reason as to why his K% against RHH is only 13.5%, compared to the 29.2% against LHH. The BB% is also up against RHH at 9.9%, compared to 4.2% aganst LHH. Just some food for thought…
In conclusion, it seems like the best option for T.J. McFarland right now is to stay in the bullpen as a swing man or long reliever. Right now, the Orioles have found a great role for him, and it is working out admirably. Remember that he was a Rule 5 draft selection, and there were reasons why the Cleveland Indians did not put him on their 40 man roster. They did not see him as a valuable enough option to protect. That along with the reasons detailed above, should give us reason enough to say that maybe McFarland should stay in the bullpen.