Analyzing TJ McFarland

Posted Wednesday April 17, 2013 at 2:00:11 pm in Real Sports

T.J. McFarland was selected by the Baltimore Orioles during the Rule 5 draft in December of 2012. He was selected 23rd overall and spent his entire career in the Cleveland Indians farm system. So how does he fit in the plans for the Baltimore Orioles in 2013?

First, it's important to note what the Rule 5 Draft is and how it impacts teams. The first year player draft is actually held in June and is also known as the Rule 4 draft. Being that the Rule 5 draft comes later in the year (in December), you can understand the progression a bit more.

Numerical and chronological differences aside, the Rule 5 Draft exists primarily to prevent teams from bogarting young players. Like the Rule 4 Draft, selection is ordered by each team's win loss record from the prior regular season. If a player is selected, that player is immediately added to a team's 40 man roster. And as the Wikipedia article states, if a team does not have a spot available, then that team is not eligible to participate in the draft. 

The one rule of the draft that makes it difficult for teams is that a player selected in the Rule 5 Draft must remain with the team's 25 man roster for the entire season. It's important to note that the 25 man roster for MLB has to be finalized before the start of the regular season. Rule 5 rules also state that the player cannot be sent to the minors. To make things more interesting, the drafting team can waive their Rule 5 draftee, however if the player is placed on waivers and no team signs that player then he must be offered back to the original team. Lastly, once a Rule 5 draftee sticks with a team for a full season, he is then eligible to be optioned or DFA'ed (designated for assignment).

Got it? If not, read above. But let me break it down with an example from last year. Ryan Flaherty was drafted by the Orioles in the 2011 Rule 5 draft. He stuck on the 25 man roster all season...and if the Orioles want to, they can send him to the minors at any time this year. If the Orioles did not keep him on the roster the entire 2012 regular season, they would have had to pass him through waivers. If he wasn't claimed by any team, then he would have had to be offered back to his original club (the Chicago Cubs).

Okay, back to TJ McFarland. After tonight's game against the New York Yankees, TJ McFarland has logged the following statistics:

  • 5 1/3 IP
  • 18 at bats
  • 8 SO
  • 1 BB
  • 2 H

He's a lefty that has worked only in long relief for the Orioles this regular season working in 2 stints this year: once against the Twins (3 1/3 IP) and once against the Yankees (2 IP). He'll top out at around 89 MPH. Not including data from today's game, you can find the full PITCH/fx data here.

Based on some slight data from his Twins appearance, he threw a 4 seam fastball, a 2 seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup. Data has his 4 seam fastball 86-89, slider 76-80, changeup 85-88, and his 2 seam fastball between 80-88.

After watching him pitch in the Twins and Yankees games, it's easy to see how he can be effective: deception and movement. He is not going to wow you with speed. He will wow you with movement and location. His slider looks particularly good. His 2 seamer looks like he keeps it low and the zone. There is nearly zero separation in speed between his fastball and his changeup, which may not be necessary if he can hammer in that 2 seamer and slider.

Based on his pitch arsenal, he should be a pretty solid groundball inducing pitcher. Dan Duquette spoke about it when he first signed him out of the Rule 5 draft:

He pitched very well the last month of the season and he pitched a fine game against our Norfolk team where he beat our ballclub down there. He's got a good sinker, he keeps the ball, he's got a good changeup. His velocity is good. It was very strong in 2011 and it was good this past season. He throws strikes in the bottom of the strike zone and we like him as a qualified major leaguer.

After looking at data from Minor League Central on McFarland located here, we can see a few statistics that support Dan's take:

  • 56.2% ground balls
  • 19.4% outfield fly balls 
  • 4.3% infield fly balls
  • 17.0% line drives
  • 0.6% bunts

You'll notice that those percentages don't add up perfectly to 100%. That comes with classification of the type of balls in play: line drives, outfield fly balls, infield fly balls, bunts, etc. Some just don't get classified properly and end up unknown. For his minor league career, about 2.5% are unknown. Not quite enough to really throw a wrench into things for our argument's sake.

Now, the above numbers dictate that TJ's ground ball to fly ball ratio (GB/FB) comes out to be 2.37. It's important to note that the ratio on Minor League Central for GB/FB only includes infield and outfield fly balls and not line drives. Some sites include line drives, some sites only include outfield fly balls as a flyball. It's important to standardize when doing comparisons across sites, as GB/FB can not always be taken at face value.

Now, for comparisons's sakes, we'll take Derek Lowe, a MLB pitcher known throughout his career as being a sinkerballer. His extended pitcher stats are located here.

Before continuing, as said above, for Minor League Central their GB/FB ratio only includes infield and flyball outs for their FB total percentage. It does not include line drives. On FanGraphs, they only use outfield fly balls in their percentage.

Throughout his career Derek Lowe has had a 3.02 GB/FB ratio. His best season coming in at  4.38 in 2003 with the Red Sox. It's also important to note that his career line drive percentage is at 17%. 

So, Lowe's career GB/FB ratio is at 3.02. If we take TJ's career MiLB numbers, we can compute a GB/FB ratio that can be compared to FanGraph's:

56.2% ground balls, 19.4% outfield fly balls: 56.2/19.4 = 2.90 GB/FB with a 17% line drive percentage.

Very close to that of Derek Lowe. 

Now, there are other reasons why I'm using Derek Lowe as a comp to TJ McFarland:

  • Derek broke into the majors in 1997 at the age of 24. TJ McFarland is also 24.
  • Derek Lowe's SO/9 in the minors was 5.5. TJ's? 6.3.
  • Derek Lowe's BB/9 in the minors was 3.0. TJ's? 2.8.
  • Derek Lowe's ERA in the minors was 4.11 with a 51-47 W-L record. TJ McFarland's ERA in the minors was 3.83 with a 48-31 record.

Like Derek Lowe, TJ wasn't a #1, #2, or even a #3 draft pick. Lowe was drafted in the 8th round. TJ McFarland was drafted in the 4th.

This is by no means a way of saying that Derek Lowe is what TJ McFarland will become. It's merely there as a comparison to show what a sinkerballer is and can do. Some of the key differences between TJ and Derek is simply velocity and types of pitches in his arsenal. Of course the other big thing being that Derek Lowe is a righty and TJ McFarland is a lefty. This, of course, plays into TJ's favour.

For TJ, I think his future with the Orioles is in a long relief role with the ability to spot start. Very similar to what Steve Johnson did for the Orioles in 2012. TJ seems like the kind of guy that can come out after a starter and disrupt a hitter's rhythm due to his deception and slow breaking balls.

Furthermore, if you look at at his appearances this year so far, they've come in after predominantly flyball pitchers: relieving Tillman against the Twins, relieving Chen against the Yankees. 

TJ is a kind of guy that can give you anywhere from 2-4 innings, maybe more if he keeps his pitch count down. He'll mostly excel going through a lineup one or two times especially relieving a pitcher with a different makeup.

My thought is that he'll make it through this season on the 25 man roster for the Orioles. I don't know think his future is as a starter for the Orioles, but as Steve Johnson showed last year: having versatility and success in any role in the bullpen is valuable. 

What I do know is that I'll be pulling for TJ. Not just because he's an Oriole, but you have to love an underdog.

The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer’s view