The Arizona Diamondbacks have had their fair share of adversity within the starting rotation. Having Taijuan Walker end his season in April and Robbie Ray make an early exit due to an oblique strain means innings need to be accounted for.
Enter T.J. McFarland.
The left-handed relief pitcher filled in for both pitchers when they left their respective starts due to injury and has thrown over four innings in three different games this year on his way to a 2.53 ERA in 21.1 innings.
Two of those three “stretch” games were losses, but the following day, the Diamondbacks are 2-1, partly because of a generally fresh bullpen.
“We love what T.J. has given us,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “It’s a great luxury to have that length in the bullpen…and the guy that can go out and throw seven pitches in an inning and get you quick, easy outs. That’s what you’re always looking for, and he’s been very pitch efficient.”
It’s not just mop-up or injury duty for the southpaw, though. McFarland has appeared in 10 games this season and accumulated the most innings from the bullpen so far this year. Filling a number of roles in the bullpen means the pitcher needs to keep a certain mindset.
“Stay ready, at any moment I can receive a phone call and face one hitter or go four (innings),” McFarland said. “It’s kind of one of those things where I’m just going to be ready at any time, all times.”
The Role of the Sinker
A mainstay of McFarland’s game is the sinker. Over his six-year career, he has thrown it 67.2% of the time according to Fangraphs.
Even though it is a staple of his pitching arsenal, it doesn’t mean it always was.
Some call it a two-seam fastball, some call it a sinker, but no matter what you call it, it’s been effective, specifically against left-handed hitters, who are hitting .208 against him this year.
“The thing I like about T.J. is he throws a two-seam fastball that gets under left-handers’ barrels (of the bat),” Lovullo said.
“You try to get the ball away from you as a left-handed hitter and you kind of give up certain areas on the inner half (of the plate). T.J. throws a pitch pretty consistently that kind of counter-punches an approach for very, very good left-handed hitters.”
McFarland is also throwing his slider more than he did last year. In 2017, he went to it 14.4% of the time, while upping it to 19.4% this year.
“I’m trying to throw everything a little bit more,” McFarland said. “A slider is a big pitch especially against the lefties when I face them, even righties too, back-footing it. I think any time you have one pitch that you can rely on, it makes it that much better when you’re able to throw your other pitches.”
On Sunday, Lovullo said the coaching staff was continuing to look at starting options when Robbie Ray’s spot in the rotation comes up, presumably on Thursday against the Washington Nationals at Chase Field. McFarland is an option they are considering.
On Friday, one of McFarland’s four-inning appearances, Kris Medlen got the start against the Astros. Lovullo said the plan was to pair him with McFarland to piece together multiple innings.
McFarland’s 2018 stats are right on par with his first half stats in 2017. His role has been expanded this year, and he only appeared in one game in April of 2017:
2017: 21 GP, 26.1 IP, 7 ER, 17 K, 2.36 ERA (first half only)
2018: 10 GP, 21.1 IP, 6 ER, 11 K, 2.53 ERA
After a stellar first half last year, McFarland struggled post All-Star break, with a 8.13 ERA. Those numbers are largely inflated because of two performances where he was tabbed for at least six earned runs. In 12 of his 22 second-half appearances, he did not give up a run.
Regardless, McFarland said he learned from his 2017, where he had a career high in appearances.
“Even when you feel like you’re doing really well and you have everything under control, baseball has a way to humble you real quick,” McFarland said. “For me, I think it’s just maintaining, just trying to stay even-keeled about with everything, no matter if I’m doing really well or really bad, just stay right there in between.”