Joe Saunders signed a one-year pact with the Seattle Mariners late last week. With Saunders off the market, it appears likely that the Orioles will look internally for a 5th starter to join Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman in starting rotation. The list of potential candidates includes: Zach Britton (L), Jake Arrieta (R), Steve Johnson (R), Brian Matusz (L), T.J. McFarland (L), and if his contract indeed becomes finalized, Jair Jurrjens (R). Zach Britton is my pre-Spring Training favorite for the final rotation spot in Baltimore. I have some thoughts on him that I’ll try to share at a later date, but I want to talk about a more under-the-radar candidate, Rule V draft pick T.J. McFarland.
The Orioles took the 23-year old McFarland in the Major League portion of this December’s Rule V draft from the Cleveland Indians. For a Rule V draft pick to stick on the 25-man roster and not be offered back to his prior team, he needs to be Major League ready. It is much more difficult for a team that hopes to contend to stash a pitcher on its Major League roster the entire season than it is to with a position player (as the O’s did with Ryan Flaherty in 2012). To that end, there are signs that point to McFarland being a Major League ready pitcher. He reached AAA last season as a 23 year-old. In his five year minor league career, the left-hander has pitched to a 3.68 ERA, with 9.5 H/9, 0.6 HR/9, 2.8 BB/9, and 6.3 K/9. McFarland is a groundball pitcher, putting up a 1.83 GO/AO ratio in 2012. Perhaps as important to any of those stats in terms of demonstrating his Major League-readiness is the fact that McFarland has averaged 141 innings pitched over the past four seasons, topping out at 160 IP in 2012. He has shown very good durability and from an innings standpoint is ready to handle a full Major League season workload.
When questioned for comment by the Baltimore Sun after the Rule V draft, Baseball America’s Jim Callis and John Manuel confirmed that McFarland might very well be Major League ready. Callis sees McFarland as potentially a back of the rotation starter: “I think he has a chance to make the team. It's not like you are really having to stretch to believe to say this guy could be a (No.) 5 or maybe a 4 starter. ... I don't think he is a high-ceiling guy, but he could be a back of the rotation guy.” Manuel agreed stating that he thinks McFarland “has a chance to stick.”
If there is one thing that gives pause to the idea that McFarland could stick with the Orioles and provide value in their starting rotation, it is his AAA numbers. In 17 starts with the Columbus Clippers of the International League last season, McFarland put up an uninspiring line: 4.82 ERA, 9.8 H/9, 0.8 HR/9, 2.9 BB/9, 4.8 K/9, and a 1.412 WHIP. All of those numbers are worse than his career averages which on the surface might indicate that the competition caught up to McFarland by the time he reached AAA. Digging below the surface however, reveals that might not exactly be the case.
First, as many pointed out after the Rule V draft, McFarland’s numbers got better as he went along in AAA, which is always a positive sign. Save for a start on August 21st in Louisville, McFarland pitched very well in August to cap off his season (4-1 with a 3.43 ERA).
It should also be noted that the Clippers play their home games at Huntington Park. The Park is relatively small down the line, with the fences running 325 feet down the left field line and 318 down the right field line. The Baseball Think Factory and other sources list Huntington Park as the most favorable hitter’s park in the International League by a large margin. Huntington Park and Akron Park (where McFarland play his home AA games) had the following Park values the last time a study was one (the 2011 season):
RC* H 2B HR BB K
Columbus 1.15 1.04 1.05 1.43 1.04 0.97
Akron 0.96 0.99 1.00 0.83 1.04 0.99
* RC = Runs created
** A factor greater than 1.00 indicates that the Park favors hitters relative to the other Parks in the same league. 2011 minor league park factors are courtesy of The Baseball Think Factory, Jeff Sackman, and Dan Symbroski.
With the exception of home runs, Akron plays relatively neutral compared to other Park’s in the Eastern League. Huntington Park appears to be a high run scoring environment that is very home run friendly relative to other International Leage Ball Parks.
Not surprisingly, McFarland demonstrated significant home/road splits during his day with the Clippers in 2012.
McFarland was a much better pitcher away from the high-run scoring environment at Huntington Park as the Park factors would suggest he should be. For a non-strikeout pitcher like McFarland who relies on a sinker to induce groundballs, it is not surprising that his numbers would be so negatively-effected by a hitter-friendly Park like the one in Columbus. It is hard to ignore that McFarland gave up seven more homeruns in about the same amount of innings at home than he did on the road. Away from Columbus, McFarland more closely resembled the pitcher he has been throughout his professional career. It seems reasonable to conclude that McFarland was a victim of his home Ballpark in AAA to at least some extent.
Additionally, as pointed out by John Manuel, as a sinker baller McFarland should be aided by Baltimore’s solid infield defense. It could also be reasoned that as an extreme ground ball pitcher, McFarland will benefit from the better infield conditions in Major League stadiums compared to Minor League fields.
With his low strikeout totals and propensity for groundballs, McFarland might remind Oriole fans of Brad Bergesen. It s not an unfair comparison as Bergy’s Minor League numbers do bare a resemblance to McFarland’s minor league numbers. Both men had the exact same Minor League ERA (3.68) while Bergesen walked less batters and allowed fewer base runners. McFarland has been the better strikeout pitcher of the two. Most importantly, however, is that McFarland has been much more successful at inducing groundballs than Bergesen during their respective Minor League careers.
We think of Bergesen as a groundball pitcher because he is – he relies on a sinking two-seam fastball and gets more ground ball outs than air outs. However, as the tables above show Bergesen is not in the same league as McFarland in terms of groundball/air out ratio. McFarland – at the same ages and levels – has been the better groundball pitcher throughout the minors. By way of comparison, Zach Britton posted GO/AO ratios of over 3.00 in A, A+, and AA+, and 2.59 in AAA. McFarland does not have the same level of groundball tendencies (nor the velocity and strikeout numbers) that made Britton one of the top prospects in the game but at the same time, his GO numbers do suggest that he profiles as a better Major League pitcher than a player like Brad Bergesen.
So what doe this all mean?
Well, it means that T.J. McFarland might profile more as a 5th starter than some might believe. There is a reasonable explanation – playing in a high-running scoring environment in Columbus – for his less-than-impressive AAA numbers. He has had great success in inducing groundballs throughout his professional career. Groundball pitchers are often able to translate their success to the Majors because of improved fields and improved defenses behind them. Layer those factors on top of what are already stellar Minor League numbers and McFarland does begin to look like a legitimate contender for the 5th starter spot in Baltimore.
Perhaps the deciding factor might be that the Orioles do not want to offer McFarland back to the Indians unless they feel they have no other choice. The fact that McFarland cannot be optioned to AAA Norfolk without being offered back to the Indians/working out a trade with the Indians and clearing waivers might give him an edge on the other 5th starter contenders (Britton, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Steve Johnson, Jair Jurrjens, and Todd Redmond) can all be optioned to the Minors without consequence. For that reason alone, if McFarland’s performance is close to the others he might have the edge on the last starter spot.
Why not just put McFarland in the bullpen, which is where most teams stash their Rule V pitchers? It is an option for sure. The Orioles could keep three lefties in the bullpen and use McFarland as a long man along with fellow lefties Matusz and Troy Patton serving in more traditional left-handed specialist roles. In that case, Tommy Hunter is likely traded before the season to open up that possibility. The Orioles could option Matusz and allow him to work as a starter in AAA Norfolk to start the season, while using McFarland as a lefty out of the bullpen. Matusz could also win the 5th starter spot himself. The problem with that scenario is that a lot of McFarland’s value is that he has shown he is durable and should be ready to throw 175+ innings as a starting pitcher in 2013. It seems the Orioles might not be maximizing McFarland’s value by having him working one-inning stints out of the bullpen rather than providing 175 innings as a starter.
The bottom line is there are many reasons why McFarland makes sense as the 5th starter in the Orioles rotation come Opening Day. I do believe Britton has the inside edge but I would not be quick to rule out McFarland as Baltimore’s starting pitcher on April 6th.