The 2015 season was a one long shuttle ride for T.J. McFarland. He was optioned and recalled ten times in 2015. In the month of June alone he was optioned to AAA Norfolk three separate times and recalled to the Orioles two times. For the players on the back end of the roster with options life is not defined by stability. A major league bullpen needs some cows to go to slaughter every now and again in order to save the rest of them. McFarland performed admirably in this role and by admirably I mean he showed up and played baseball.
McFarland posted a career high 4.91 ERA in a career low 40.1 major league innings. He started 0 games in 2015. He only struck out 13.8 percent of hitters while walking a career high 9.6 percent of hitters. He posted a career low 64.3 left on base percentage (LOB%) and a career high BABIP of .343. He also managed to yield home runs on 16.7 percent on fly balls. There is not much T.J. McFarland does well and 2015 was the worst for him.
This is evident in the way in which manager Buck Showalter utilized his young lefty. In 2015, in the 40.1 innings pitched by McFarland, only 2 of those innings were considered high leverage situations. High leverage being situations that occur in games that are late and close and/or with runners on base. In his career McFarland has pitched 173.2 innings and racked up a total of 15.1 high leverage innings, an astoundingly low 8.7 percent of all his innings pitched.
For a comparison, from 2013 to 2015 Tommy Hunter pitched in 41.2 high leverage innings good for almost 20 percent of his overall inning totals. For some more context, about 1/3 of Zach Britton's innings in the bullpen are considered high leverage. The point being here that McFarland does not see the mound when the game is on the line. When outs are needed most, McFarland is nowhere to be found. However, this does not mean that his presence is without worth.
I'm not saying all of this to demean McFarland. Although it may seem that way. In a way what he does is laudable and arguably as important as what the key cogs in the bullpen do. Also, it might be even harder. He eats innings. Usually more than one at a time. He is left handed, he gets ground balls, and he has options. All of this make him an asset.
Maybe one of the most undervalued aspects of a player in baseball analysis is that the game has to be played. It has to be played 162 times and, for the most part, 9 innings at a time. That is a lot of baseball. In most cases, baseball injuries are caused by repetition. The ligament gives out. The muscle is strained. The thousands of swings. The thousands of pitches. That is why giving pitchers proper rest reduces injury risk and fatigue while also making them more effective in the long run. Maybe if Zach Britton has to pitch 86 innings in 2014 rather than the 76 he did, some of those close Orioles wins end up as losses. It is important to have competent players who can come up when needed and pitch when asked to. In this way T.J. McFarland performed about as well as anyone could ask.
He was a bit unlucky in 2015. He gave up too many home runs, but that was probably just a bit of bad luck. He also had a high BABIP and a few other things did not break right for him. The perils of trying to judge someone after only 40.1 innings of work. He still is left handed and still gets ground balls. In fact he held lefties to a .232/.267/.317 line in 2015. Right handed hitters were much harder for him to get out, but again, being highly effective is not McFarland's forte. He still recorded a 64.3 percent ground ball rate and recorded outs when the better pitchers were not needed and got the team closer to finishing a baseball game.
In his career, McFarland has thrown 65.3 percent of his innings in low leverage situations. A total of 113.1 innings not wasted on someone who was going to be needed with the game on the line. Riding the shuttle back and forth between the minors for maybe only a day at a time in the majors is a hard life.
Unlike the key bullpen arms, McFarland's baseball life lacks stability and continuity. In the sense that the 162 games need to be finished and that some of the innings in some of those games should not be eaten up by the best pitcher available, T.J. McFarland may be one of the most valuable pieces the Orioles have. Because, simply, he can play baseball when he's asked to.