PHOENIX — Brandon McCarthy likens it to falling off a cliff, when he goes from perfectly healthy to perfectly miserable because of seasonal shoulder inflammation. It has happened every year for the last five, and he adopted a new offseason regimen in an attempt to pair his usual effectiveness with more elusive durability this time.
As a side effect, McCarthy is throwing harder than he ever has. He consistently reached 94 mph with his moving fastball in his first two starts, and while the other numbers have yet to fall into place, he believes he is stronger and better equipped to hit his goal of 200 innings this season, which would be a career high. The D-backs’ rotation could use that, especially with Patrick Corbin out for the year.
"To actually get to stay out there for 200 innings would be fantastic. That’s the one I really want more than anything," said McCarthy, whose previous high was 170 2/3 innings with Oakland in 2011.
"If you can there, you’ve hit that level of being a durable pitcher. Like Bronson (Arroyo). It would be a huge point of pride for me to get there. If I have gotten there, that means I have joined the rest of the ranks of big league starting pitchers of guys you can rely on through October. That’s the one number I have in mind."
In an attempt to get there, McCarthy took a somewhat unusual path this winter. He enlisted the help of Sam Mulroy, a neighbor and personal trainer who operates a gym in suburban Dallas, where McCarthy makes his home. The two designed a program that went beyond traditional pitcher workouts to one that included much more heavy lifting, with free weights a staple. McCarthy has spent parts of the last five years on the disabled list because of inflammation or shoulder strains.
"In the past, I’d work out in different workout facilities that trained athletes, and I realized that wasn’t specialized enough," McCarthy said. "I knew what I wanted to accomplish, I just needed someone to help guide me through it. The relationship worked out very well, where it was passing ideas back and forth. He definitely taught me how to get stronger, and we shoe-horned that in with getting baseball stronger."
McCarthy, whose next start will be Friday night, when the Diamondbacks return home to face the Los Angeles Dodgers, missed 10 weeks with shoulder inflammation last season, his first with the D-backs after signing as a free agent. He spent two successful if abbreviated years in Oakland, where he was 9-9 with a 3.32 ERA in 25 starts in 2011 and 8-6 with a 3.24 ERA in 18 starts in 2012. He missed the last month of that season after a line drive fractured his skull on Sept. 5.
McCarthy, 6-foot-7 and 200 pounds, always has thrown strikes. His ratio of 1.51 walks per nine innings is the second best in the majors since 2011, and D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said, "He is probably the best we have at repeating his delivery."
His body of work in Oakland shows the pitcher McCarthy can be but also underlines his frustration.
"Even when I have had good seasons, it sucks to miss a six-week to two-month span in the middle of it," McCarthy said. "It’s nice to know you contributed by playing well, but once you miss a middle chunk, it feels like you missed the full season."
Thus the new approach, which also includes what McCarthy calls an "extreme dedication to the proper diet, proper rest cycles, everything I can do to put the body in one strong, functional place. After the first couple of weeks of seeing differences, it sort of became addictive."
Perhaps no one was as happy to see the start of the regular season as McCarthy’s wife, Amanda, who arose early in spring training to make breakfast and supervise his diet, which now includes much less sugar.
"I’ve tried a lot of different things, and all of it has been trying to strengthen things in different ways," McCarthy said of his newest conditioning program "I don’t have physical injuries. It always manifests itself as a buildup of fatigue and things breaking down. Knowing that I can get through the middle of the season fine and the end of the season fine, it doesn’t make sense that that middle portion was . . . So this is a way of trying to build strength and hope it lasts longer."
While the early results haven’t shown it (0-2, 7.84 ERA in two starts), there’s reason to feel encouraged. McCarthy has put on about 15 pounds from the end of last season, some as the body naturally replenished after a grueling season, but some in places he had not seen before. The clothes fit a little tighter, the ball moves a little faster. His sinking two-seam fastball and his curve, the two pitches he will rely most heavily on this season, are 2 mph faster this season than in previous years, according to FanGraphs.
"This is definitely the hardest I’ve ever thrown," McCarthy said. "It wasn’t really something I was expecting. I thought I would be stronger and hopefully more durable. Velocity is a nice added bonus. If it stays, great. There are more things I can do with that. I feel stronger. Anyway that shows up, I’ll take it."