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Entering 2022, Jake McCarthy was a promising depth piece for the Diamondbacks. He was lightning fast. He held his own at all three outfield positions. He was still only 24 years old.
But even then, prospect evaluators made little mention of the University of Virginia product. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t be a big leaguer — he broke into the majors in August the year prior — but few saw him as an impactful one.
In 2022, McCarthy forced his critics to reconsider, slashing .283/.342/.427 with 23 stolen bases and 2.3 fWAR in 99 games. Most of that damage came after his final recall to the big-league roster on July 11, after which he hit an even more impressive .302/.361/.434 and stole 22 of his 23 bases. Heck, with the new pitch clock rules coming into play this season, he could run wild on the bases in 2023.
McCarthy wasn’t just good last year. He was manager Torey Lovullo’s No. 3 hitter in 22 games. The million dollar question, of course, is this: Was McCarthy’s superb second half enough to supplant several years of uninspiring scouting reports?
Based on stats alone, the answer to that question is probably no — not yet, at least. Frankly, it’s hard to be too bullish on any player with this much blue on his Baseball Savant page. (In each category, 50 is average and blue indicates below-average performance while red indicates above-average performance.)
In summary, McCarthy hit fewer hard-hit balls (95 MPH exit velocity or higher) than 84 percent of his peers. He barreled fewer balls than 80 percent of his peers. He walked less than 73 percent of his peers. He struck out more often than 54 percent of his peers. He also graded out as a slightly below-average outfielder, primarily because of a relatively slow first step. Frankly, none of these metrics are indicative of the type of player McCarthy was last year. Regression looks inevitable. Still, we ought to dig deeper.
I mentioned earlier that McCarthy’s 2022 season was separated into three stints. The first one went from Opening Day to April 25. The second was from May 20 to June 16. The last one, discussed earlier, went from July 11 through the end of the season. Let’s consider each of them separately.
|4/7 to 4/25||28||.120||.185||.240||7.1||42.9||87.6||14.3|
|5/20 to 6/16||58||.278||.328||.481||5.2||31||91.6||58.3|
|7/11 and on||268||.302||.361||.434||6.7||17.2||86.6||30.2|
A few things stand out. First, McCarthy was not only good in his third and final big-league stint of the year. He was also quite good in his second, which saw him hit .278/.328/.481. In fact, if we take McCarthy’s entire season and just throw out those two weeks in April, McCarthy hit .297/.355/.443.
Second, McCarthy’s strikeout rate fluctuated drastically, from 42.9 percent from April 7 to April 25 to 31 percent from May 20 to June 16 to 17.2 percent from July 11 and on. In September, he told Inside the Diamondbacks’ Michael McDermott that, upon being recalled in July, he was especially focused on putting the ball in play. The dip in strikeout rate shows he did exactly that.
Low strikeout rates don’t necessarily equate to offensive success, though. The D-backs actually had quite a few hitters with below-average strikeout rates last year, but many of them — Alek Thomas, Carson Kelly and Geraldo Perdomo in particular — still put up subpar offensive numbers.
The reality is that lowering one’s strikeout rate is often accompanied by a dip in hard contact, and that was also the case for McCarthy. In his final stint of the year, McCarthy’s average exit velocity was just 86.6 MPH (league average is 88.4 MPH) and his hard-hit rate was 30.2 percent (league average is 35.8 percent). In total, McCarthy’s batted ball profile in those last three months — when he did most of his damage — looked more like that of Thomas, Kelly and Perdomo than it did of, say, Christian Walker.
Accordingly, McCarthy’s expected stats from StatCast were well below his actual numbers. His expected batting average was .249 compared to his actual batting average of .283. His expected slugging percentage was .357 compared to his actual of .427. All signs point to a hitter who successfully lowered his strikeout rate, but did not hit the ball hard enough to sustainably be an above-average hitter.
McCarthy does have one tool, however, that is unequivocally elite, regardless of his approach at the plate: speed. In 2022, McCarthy’s sprint speed ranked in the 98th percentile across baseball. That gives him the ability to accumulate a disproportionate number of infield hits, and to stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples. Could that explain why McCarthy fared so well last year? Absolutely, at least in part.
I went back and watched all 19 of McCarthy’s non-homer extra-base hits in 2022, and you could make the case that his speed played a role in at least a third of them. Consider this example from July 30, in which McCarthy ropes a liner to left and turns a single into a double.
There are also examples of McCarthy’s speed causing defenders to rush. In this example, San Francisco Giants center fielder Austin Slater is so worried about getting the throw in to second base that he is unable to pick up the ball cleanly.
McCarthy also benefitted from a number of poor defensive plays, the types of plays that, unfortunately, are better attributed to good luck than an identifiable skill.
In this example, San Diego Padres outfielder Jurickson Profar misjudges a fly ball. According to StatCast, the ball had a 99 percent catch probability. Based on that number, it was Profar’s worst defensive mishap of the year by far.
There were also infield mishaps. Here, Padres first baseman Jake Cronenworth attempts to make a tough diving play on a ball that arguably would have been easier for his second baseman to field. As a result, what arguably should have been an out turned into a double.
A nearly identical incident happened with Los Angeles Dodgers infielders Freddie Freeman and Gavin Lux two months prior. Once again, what could have been an out went into the scorebook as a double.
Every big-league hitter catches a break every now and then, but McCarthy clearly had more than his fair share, even after factoring in his speed. That trend is unlikely to continue. It also helps us understand why McCarthy’s offensive numbers were so good despite his uninspiring batted ball profile.
Heading into 2023, it would be naive not to expect some degree of regression for McCarthy. If he comes back with the same approach and a similar level of execution as he had at the end of last year, it is highly unlikely he would post similar offensive numbers. The math just doesn’t check out.
What is intriguing, however, is McCarthy’s performance from May 20 to June 16. In that span, McCarthy had an average exit velocity of 91.6 MPH and a hard-hit rate of 58.3 percent. Granted, we should be careful about putting much stock into 58 plate appearances, but both of those marks are well above-average. They give the impression that McCarthy is capable of hitting the ball harder, even if it comes with the tradeoff of a 31 percent strikeout rate.
Those numbers also raise the question of whether McCarthy could have overcorrected a bit in the last few months of the year, focusing excessively on putting the ball in play and not enough on hitting the ball hard. Perhaps there is a happy medium to be struck that could help McCarthy reach new heights. Remember, McCarthy is not a small human being. He is listed at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, and he sure looks like the type of guy who should be trying to hit the ball hard rather than fishing for dinks and dunks.
The range of outcomes for the D-backs’ 25-year-old is very wide in 2023. Maybe he makes some adjustments and, remarkably, is able to replicate his 2022 success. Maybe he finds a way to tap into his power more with only a modest increase in strikeouts. Maybe he takes a step back, as the underlying metrics suggest, and becomes more like the fourth outfielder scouts have long projected him to be.
Regardless, McCarthy looks like a big X-factor for the D-backs, as they look to take the next step in the ever-stacked NL West.
Top photo: Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY Sports
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