Deserting the Desert
The 2014 Arizona Diamondbacks were destined to be in the thick of the NL pennant race come late August. They brought back their core from 2013, when they finished 2nd in the NL West to the 92-win Dodgers, and came nine games from a Wild Card spot. They had a budding ace in Patrick Corbin, who was only going to help a pitching staff with a respectable 3.92 ERA a season ago improve. They added Bronson Arroyo in the offseason, fresh off a 14-win campaign in Cincinnati. They had the healthy mix of established veterans and rising youngsters that seems to be the winning formula these days.
Then, the wheels fell off.
Corbin had Tommy John surgery prior to the year. Bronson Arroyo tore his UCL in June, and was ruled out for the remainder of the season. A couple of weeks later, Daniel Hudson underwent the second Tommy John surgery of his career. Chris Owings, a pleasant 1st-Half surprise at Shortstop hitting .277, went down with an injury after 72 games. The team learned the hard way Cody Ross couldn't hit like he once could. Wade Miley was getting shelled. The list goes on, and on, and on.
It drove a veteran like Martin Prado crazy. He'd never had to take the majority of the offensive responsibilities on his shoulders, playing seven years in Atlanta with future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, and All-Stars Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, and Freddie Freeman in their prime.
"When you have that kind of pressure, you drive yourself to the point where you don’t know what to do," Prado said. "There are a lot of things in your head like ‘we’re losing, we’ve got to change things.’ You start changing your stuff, changing your routine, looking for new stuff. You end up driving yourself into a pattern where you don’t know what to do. There’s a lot of stress. It’s hard."
Brandon McCarthy had a similar experience. While he bounced around the league in his early years unlike Prado, he found a groove in Oakland. He led the league in FIP (measures a pitcher's effectiveness at preventing HR, BB, HBP and causing SO) in 2011, and had a combined ERA under 3.30 in his two years there. McCarthy then signed a two-year deal in Arizona, where not only did the rotation around him crumble, but he says his pitch types were controlled. The Diamondbacks wanted him to favor his out pitch so much, it got to the point where he lost his edge. "It was here’s just a sinker and let’s see if we can just get them to put the ball in play," he said.
The tides turned in their favor as the summer wore on, and both wound up being traded to the New York Yankees in separate deals, for Vidal Nuno and prospect Peter O'Brien, collectively. Now, they find themselves in the thick of the AL pennant race, surrounded by a clubhouse full of veterans with a hefty amount of playoff experience. This, Brandon McCarthy explained, is what some Diamondbacks were hoping for.
"It was a thing that kept me going when things got terrible in Arizona," he said. "I talked to a couple other guys, saying ‘we all stink, but there’s a chance that who knows what, one of us could be World Series MVP this year and the first three months are forgotten about.’”
Now, both he and Prado have that chance, and it's given them the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and change their attitude.
"After I got traded I said ‘You know what? I just want to go out there and play ball," Prado said. "I want to play hard. I want to do as well as I can do out there. And whatever happens, happens."
What's happened since the burden of carrying most of the offense was alleviated is a 110 wRC+ in 21 games with New York, and the highest fly ball rate (41%) of Martin Prado's career. He's done extra hitting before regular batting practice and worked with Hitting Coach Kevin Long on what's referred to as the "net drill" or "home run drill" to shorten his swing and drive the ball. Robinson Cano found success doing the same drill in his time with the Yankees.
"He’d been struggling personally where he didn’t look like himself and the Martin everybody got to know in Atlanta," said Brandon McCarthy, days after the acquisition. "I think he’s going to be one of those guys who starts to pick it up and shine. He was in a pennant race in Atlanta year after year. Guys around the league knew him as being a tremendous pain in the [rear], in a good way. I’m excited to see that come back now, now that the games really start to mean something.”
McCarthy has certainly pitched like it's mattered since he was traded, with a 1.90 ERA over 52 innings, and the lowest FIP (2.33) of his career.
“You can see it in their face, you can see it in their emotion," said Joe Girardi of the former Diamondbacks. "How excited they are to be in this type of situation...they thrive off these types of games. I think it’s really helped [Brandon McCarthy], and he’s pitched extremely well for us.”
The new life injected into these two is not uncommon in the locker room, considering Stephen Drew's journey from the World Series last year to the bottom of the AL East early this season, and Chase Headley's years with the basement-dwelling Padres. Every game, every inning, and every at-bat counts. It's that attitude that could push the Yankees forward into the playoffs.
"You’re legitimately trying to make a pitch with every pitch," said McCarthy. "Here, it’s been of a shift in mindset, where I have to grind, and grind, and grind and do it somehow.”