By DJ Sixsmith
Brandon McCarthy’s baseball journey has taken many different twists and turns. From winning a World Series with the Chicago White Sox in 2005 to getting brain surgery in 2012, McCarthy has endured many challenges during his 10-year career.
McCarthy is currently in his second season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 32-year-old hasn’t pitched this year as he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery. McCarthy sat down to talk about the keys to overcoming adversity in baseball, the impact of sabermetrics on his career, transforming his pitching mechanics and playing with stars like Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Donaldson and Clayton Kershaw.
Who was the baseball player that inspired you the most while you were growing up?
Brandon McCarthy: I became a Dodgers fan when I was a little kid. I was 5 years old during the 1988 team’s run. Orel Hershiser was my guy and I would go out in the yard and pretend to be him. I shifted into a White Sox fan as I grew older because of Frank Thomas.
The Chicago White Sox drafted you in the 17th round back in 2002. What was the most difficult part of the transition from junior college to professional baseball?
BM: It was time to be an adult. There was no more school cafeteria or schedule. I was living in an apartment and at 18 years old there was nothing but just baseball. You’re not really making any money and you just have to figure things out for yourself. It’s a big jump and a big difference, but baseball wise things were pretty similar.
Your major league debut was against the Chicago Cubs. You pitched against Mark Prior. What do you remember most about that day?
BM: At that time, I had spent three or four years being a really big Mark Prior fan. He looked like a version of something I wanted to become. He became a hero of mine during that time because we had a lot of similar mechanical features. I had the chance to reach out to him a few years prior and pick his mind about a few things. The whole day was a blur. It was like a good car accident. You come away fine, but you really can’t describe what happened.
What was it like hitting against Prior that day?
BM: I hadn’t batted in about four or five years. I do remember that I battled in both at bats really well that day. I worked a full count in both at bats. One of those at bats should’ve been a walk instead of a strikeout. I will never forget hearing Prior’s fastball. That was when I realized this was going to be tough.
Injuries have had a major impact on your journey through baseball. How have you managed to persevere through such tough times?
BM: My mental state has been the key. I’m very fortunate to have the disposition that I have. I seem very cynical and negative, but most of that is just to get laughs. Inside I remain positive. The highs aren’t too high and the lows aren’t too low. Every time I’ve been hurt, I’ve allowed myself a few hours of shock and then rationally begin to think to myself about how I can get back on the field. I’ve been able to swim through the low parts of my career because I just don’t see them from being any different than the high parts.
In the past, you contemplated retirement. How close were you to actually walking away from the game of baseball?
BM: In hindsight, I was not very close. But, I was close to a point where the game was going to force me out. In 2010 during spring training with the Texas Rangers, I got sent down to Triple A. During that season, the majors felt so far away because of the injuries I was experiencing. I began to think about other options, but that was also the time when I began making changes to my mechanics and approach to the game. I applied to a few online universities, but I was never really serious about walking away.
Let’s step away from your baseball career. What are some other things you enjoy outside of the ballpark?
BM: It’s all over the place. I recently liked playing golf and got pretty good for a while. Reading and writing interest me, the English language interests me and there are certain things in business that I like. There’s never been one thing to reach out and grab me like baseball has.
Another one of your interests is sabermetrics. How did advanced statistics help you transform as a pitcher and get your career on the right path?
BM: I needed to change out of necessity. I was home run prone and I didn’t induce a lot of ground balls. Through my sabermetrics research, I learned that guys who had a higher strikeout rate and higher ground ball rate had a better chance of controlling the game. The poster child for this was Roy Halladay. He was somebody I looked up to because he was a tall right-handed pitcher from Colorado like I was. I tried to model my game after his.
Most people remember you as the pitcher that got hit in the head by a line drive on Opening Day in 2012. Take me behind the scenes of the hours, weeks and months after that moment. What was life like for you after undergoing brain surgery?
BM: The first few days I thought I was aware of everything that had happened, but my wife and family helped me realize that I wasn’t all that aware. There were good moments and bad moments during those days and looking back a lot of it is hazy. Around the third or fourth day, I started to realize that my brain was working the same way. I sent a few sarcastic tweets from the hospital and knew that my brain was working like it used to.
One of the best stops of your career was in New York with the Yankees. What was it like pitching for the Pinstripes and playing with Derek Jeter during his final season?
BM: It was a lot of fun. My time in Arizona was not very good. I just think organizationally and personally we weren’t a good fit. I needed a change of scenery and I was very fortunate that I was traded to a team that had a plan for me. I got very comfortable quickly because New York City was a place that made a lot of sense for my wife and me.
Did you grab any Jeter memorabilia from that season?
BM: I took a few balls from the last game. That was a game that you realized something special was happening. I don’t know if it’s a game I’ll be telling my kids about 30 years from now, but it was one of the only games in my career that I’ve taken any sort of memorabilia. The Yankees are a whole different deal, so I made sure to take a few balls.
Going back to your time in Arizona, you played alongside one of the best hitters in baseball in Paul Goldschmidt. What makes him such a special player?
BM: He’s extremely physically talented and he can do things that other guys can’t do. He’s very driven, very quiet, very humble, but I think inside he knows how good he is. He’s got the whole package and he’s also a great person, which makes it easy to root for him. Our lockers were next to each other the whole time I was in Arizona. He’s the real deal. He isn’t a flash in the pan.
Another one of your teammates who’s ascended to superstar status is Josh Donaldson. He batted just .241 when you were in Oakland with him. How do you think he took take his game to the next level?
BM: He just needed to make a few changes. He would go down to Triple-A and put up absolute clown numbers. He had unbelievable power, unbelievable bat speed and a good arm, but he just needed to put it all together. The last half of 2012 he turned things around, started to hit the other way and hasn’t looked back since.
You’re in your second season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. How has your experience with the Dodgers differed from your time with other teams in the league?
BM: It’s different because I’ve contributed with only four starts. It’s not a success or a failure; it’s at the point where I’m a guy who is just trying to get back on the field. I love the guys, I like the organization and I really don’t have a bad thing to say about my LA experience. I’m very lucky to be here and to have signed with the Dodgers. My goal is to make this experience end well. It is my responsibility to give the organization two and a half strong years to make up for the time I’ve missed.
The most well-known Dodger these days is Clayton Kershaw. What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from him?
BM: He’s exactly what I pictured in my mind. On game day, he’s a completely different pitcher than he is the other days he’s not pitching. He’s obsessive about his routine and that’s the hallmark for people who are consistently good. The level of intensity he hits during a game is incredible. I’ve never seen a guy like that.
Tommy John surgery has become quite common across the league. You had the procedure done last April. You’ve had many friends who’ve decided to get the surgery. How does the reality of the rehab compare to the expectations you had going in?
BM: I think it’s pretty close to what I expected. I viewed the whole process in steps. I focused on the day of my surgery, what I was going to do the day after my surgery and when I could get the cast off my arm. Since that point I’ve treated everything on a day-to-day basis. There haven’t been many surprises. I’m now working through a bullpen progression every three or four days. I’m throwing at about 80-85%. I want to come back and be better in some way.
Finally, what’s the biggest difference from the Brandon McCarthy we saw start his career in Chicago compared to the pitcher who is now with the Dodgers?
BM: I don’t recognize myself before 2011. I can’t believe the old guy got outs before I made the changes to my mechanics. It feels that foreign to me. Watching old videos of me pitching is painful. I look at it almost as two separate careers. The pitcher I became after 2011 is the pitcher I’d like to be going forward with a few changes here and there.
DJ Sixsmith hosts CBS Sports Radio Roundup from 2-6pm. The Fordham University graduate is also a play-by-play announcer who has called games on Fox Sports, ESPN 3 and the Big East Digital Network. Follow DJ on Twitter @DJ_Sixsmith.