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April 8, 2007

Prospectus Q&A

David McCarty

by David Laurila

When Minnesota selected David McCarty as the third overall pick in the 1991 draft, the Stanford product had just hit .420 with 24 home runs and been named the NCAA Player of the Year. The Twins thought they were getting a future superstar, but instead, McCarty spent much of his career as a bench player and journeyman, seeing time with the Twins, Giants, Mariners, Royals, Devil Rays, Athletics, and Red Sox. Known primarily as an outstanding defensive first baseman, McCarty appeared in 630 big league games over 11 seasons, hitting .242 with 36 home runs.

David Laurila talked to McCarty for Baseball Prospectus about not meeting expectations, quantifying a player's value, and striking out Rafael Palmeiro.

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David Laurila: You came to the big leagues in 1993 with high expectations, but after hitting .379 in your first 16 games, struggled for the remainder of the season. What was the primary reason?

David McCarty: I did get off to a good start with my batting average, but I hadn't hit a home run yet. They told me they wanted me to produce more power, and in trying to do that my swing got a little long. I got messed up mechanically, in part because I hadn't matured as a hitter and didn't yet understand the proper way to get better carry on the line drives I was hitting.

DL: What is the proper way to get better carry?

DM: What I learned to do was to set my sights a little lower on the ball, and to go inside more. If you keep your hands inside the ball you'll generate backspin and get more carry. If you don't, you'll go around the ball and get hook-spin instead, and when that happens you won't get as much. For a hitter like me whose power was more gap-to-gap, that makes a difference.

DL: It sounds like your first-year struggles were more mechanical than mental. Would it be accurate to say that?

DM: They were mechanical at first, but when you struggle for the first time as a hitter, it becomes mental. That's what happened to me, and to be honest, it took me a few years, probably until 1995, to fully regain my confidence.

DL: Do you feel that you were rushed to the big leagues?

DM: In retrospect, yes. I don't blame the Twins for that, though. I had high expectations for myself, so I don't feel they put any added pressure on me. Had they kept me in Triple-A for most of the '93 season, I know I wouldn't have been happy. But would it have been better for my career to have gotten more time in the minor leagues? Absolutely.

DL: You got 350 at-bats in your rookie year, but after that had as many as 200 in a big league season only twice. Why didn't you live up to expectations?

DM: One thing is that it's amazing how quickly you get labeled in this game. I never did get to play every day after that first year. Instead, I became known as a platoon-bench guy. We're seeing it change a little today, but a lot of times back then it was more of a "follow the herd" mentality. It takes a guy like a Billy Beane or a Theo Epstein to stick their necks out and say, "I don't care what everyone else says. This guy can do some things to help out a team." You see GMs signing an old "name player" at the end of his career and used to playing every day, and expecting them to maintain their career stats when they are on the bench. The vast majority of the time those guys fail because they don't know how to be a bench player. When that occurs the GM has covered his butt because the name player hasn't produced. If the GM had stuck his neck out though for a non-name player and the guy fails to produce, then the fans and media want the GM's head on a pike.

DL: You ended up going back and forth between the major and minor leagues for much of your career, and in 1997 spent the whole year in Triple-A, where you hit .353-22-92. What did not getting called up that season mean to you?

DM: Once you get labeled, it doesn't matter what you do. I've seen guys tear it up in Triple-A, and then get called up to rot on the bench. They sit for two weeks, then get sent in to pinch-hit against someone's closer, or maybe they get an at-bat in a mop-up situation where the strike zone is bigger because everyone just wants to get the game over. Basically, they're being set up to fail. If you take A-Rod or David Ortiz and stick them into a situation where the only hitting they do is in BP, they're going to struggle, too. You need game-speed to stay sharp. Guys will get sent back down because they didn't produce in a handful of at-bats, and the response will usually be, "See, he's just a Triple-A hitter."

DL: You had great success against guys like Jim Parque (5-for-9) and Darren Oliver (4-for-8 with three doubles and a home run), but very little against C.C. Sabathia (1-for-17) and Mark Buerhle (1-for14 with six Ks). How aware of those numbers were you when you faced those pitchers?

DM: I was aware, but we're also talking about fewer than 20 at-bats. I had good numbers against J.C. Romero, too, but he wasn't fun to face. Still, with a small sample-size, it would be hard to tell that. I was 3-for-3 against Mike Maroth, but that was on one day and I'm not sure I hit a ball out of the infield. If you look at the 3-for-3, you think I hit him well, but I didn't. I got lucky. And in the case of Sabathia, he's nasty, but I actually saw the ball well against him. The numbers weren't good, but with more data--with more at-bats--it probably would have evened out a little.

DL: Do you feel that your managers looked at the numbers the same way you did?

DM: In this day and age you know the numbers, so you know the managers do, too. That's something that's changed a lot over the years. Early in my career, the managers would go more on their gut feeling, or on something like, "This guys does well against lefties." The wealth of information you have now is huge. You go into at-bats knowing that 75 percent of the time a guy is going to throw a fastball on the first pitch, or that he'll throw a changeup on a 2-0 count 16 percent of the time.

DL: When did you begin to notice a shift toward more statistical awareness in the game?

DM: I'd say it began getting more widespread in the late '90s when Bill James and Moneyball came into vogue. That's when you started hearing a lot of numbers in hitters' meetings. The game has definitely been impacted, although people maybe get caught up a little too much on OBP. I think what Moneyball is really about is an approach not unlike looking at stocks as an asset. You're looking at which assets are undervalued in the market, and trying to capitalize on their value. Billy Beane had statistical evidence to back him up on OBP, so that really took hold for a lot of people. But while it's meaningful, you can place too much value on certain things.

DL: Can you elaborate on that?

DM: I think there has been too much focus on things that are easier to quantify. I know there have been advances in defense metrics, with things like zone ratings, but most of the numbers you can accurately quantify are offensive. In my mind, if you're figuring a player's value, you need to take into consideration the runs he takes away. And there are guys who own a glove mostly for self-defense purposes, and you need to subtract for that. I know that when I played with Nomar, he liked knowing that he could throw a ball from deep in the hole because there was someone there who could pick it. There's true value in things like that, but they're hard to quantify.

DL: Over the course of your career, how much did you see attitudes toward the use of performance-enhancing drugs evolve?

DM: As a player you knew they were out there, and there were guys you suspected, but you didn't really talk about it. When things broke, and there was more talk, it was interesting to learn that a lot of pitchers had been using it to help in their recovery. A lot of people don't realize it, but the steroid era (involved) pitchers, too.

DL: What else do you see as having had an impact on the increase of offense in today's game?

DM: A big factor is that a lot of pitchers are being drafted off their radar gun readings. Teams are drafting throwers instead of pitchers. Too many guys are coming up who throw hard, but that's all they have. If I'm a big league hitter, I'm going to adjust to a guy throwing 95 or 96. If he can't get his breaking ball over, I'm going to wait for a fastball, and a 95 mph fastball goes a long way when you make solid contact. There aren't as many guys like Greg Maddux and Paul Byrd anymore--guys who don't throw hard but hit their spots and mix their pitches. They're the ones that are tough to hit, because you never know what's coming. Another is Mike Mussina. When we played together at Stanford he threw his fastball in the mid 90s, but you look at the way he has evolved as a pitcher over the course of his career, and he has learned to take a little off the fastball and locate it, knowing that he can go to the max-effort fastball when he needs to. He's putting together a Hall of Fame career by pitching instead of throwing, even though he could be successful enough just raring back and throwing.

DL: You made three appearances as a pitcher in 2004. Was striking out Rafael Palmeiro one of the highlights of your career?

DM: That was fun, pitching. Realistically, I wish I'd have had more than the three opportunities. I was a 6-foot-5 lefty who was throwing 88 (mph), and I could locate my fastball pretty well. That was coming in as a position player, so I could have hit 90 with some instruction and preparation. I think I really could have had a chance to be effective as a pitcher.

DL: You have an economics degree from Stanford. From a financial standpoint, what is wrong with the game, and what is right?

DM: Financially, the game is doing all right in my opinion. The owners always complain about losing money, yet refuse to open their books. Who knows what sort of robbing Peter (the team) to pay Paul (another entity owned by the team owner) accounting tricks are going on. There is also a lot of talk about salaries getting out of control. If the owners' number one interest is holding down salaries, they should scrap the current system and make all players--unless they are under a long-term deal--free agents at the end of every season. You would glut the free agent market, thereby driving down salaries, but what they are really after is artificial salary control while still maintaining absolute control over players until they reach free agency. After all, it's not like a player can tell his employer that he quit and then go work for another team. I am a big believer in the free market system.

DL: Any final thoughts?

DM: One more thing I'd like to address regarding the quantification of the game is that when comparing players, and only looking at the numbers you often can't get an apples-to-apples comparison. You see the guys who have never played the game saying, "Gee, if I take this bench guy who is .240 with only a few home runs and play him every day his numbers would only be X. That isn't good." They need to realize that if he gets more regular at-bats, a player's numbers will go up. A lot of those outs were due to rust and his timing being off. If you take the everyday player and play him only sporadically, his numbers will not just go down based on the decreased at-bats, but by more than that due to the lack of timing as a hitter that comes with reduced playing time. You see the same thing with the last guy in the bullpen too. He could do much better with more regular innings.

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David grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Interviews from Red Sox Nation which was published in 2006 by Maple Street Press.

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