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Dodgers betting Brandon McCarthy can shoulder the load

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- Brandon McCarthy reached 200 innings in 2014 for the first time in his 10-year career. The Dodgers are waging $48 million that he can do it again, and again, signing the 31-year-old right-hander to a four-year contract on Tuesday.

It was just the second time McCarthy has pitched more than 135 innings in a season, but general manager Farhan Zaidi, who was in the Athletics' front office during McCarthy's time in Oakland, in 2011-2012, thinks the right-hander has turned a corner.

"Injury histories and medical histories are part of the equation, but we have to consider with pitchers. [Dodgers director of medical services] Stan Conte has very involved in our process of evaluating health histories and health risks going forward. With any pitcher, it's part of the cost-benefit analysis," Zaidi said on Tuesday. "There are times you want to bet on a guy for the long term because you believe he can meet or even exceed his expectations over the long haul."

Betting on McCarthy seems risky, given that hitting the disabled list was an annual occurrence for him, almost one for which you could set an appointment. McCarthy hit the disabled list 11 times in seven years, from 2007-2013, including eight times for his right shoulder.

Some time near the end of May, just about every year, McCarthy would either have inflammation or a stress fracture of his scapula in his right shoulder (the latter the result of too much built-up inflammation). In 2009, his last start before the disabled list was June 4. In 2010 it was April 24. Then May 18. Then May 17. Then May 30.

Every year, he would end up on the disabled list. At least once.

"I tried so many different little things to fix my shoulder. The old standard shoulder strengthening programs, I tried different throwing routines," McCarthy explained, "But I think those avoided the main issue, which just might have been having enough raw strength to withstand the rigors of a major league season."

On Sept. 5, 2012, McCarthy suffered another injury, this time not a shoulder issue. He was struck by a line drive off the bat of Erick Aybar, and suffered an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion and skull fracture, and missed the rest of the season. Since it was September, McCarthy wasn't placed on the disabled list, but it was still a very serious injury.

"Look at you, you have the upper body of a teenage boy. Let's try to get you bigger and stronger." -Brandon McCarthy's trainer, after the 2013 season

The next year, with the Diamondbacks, while on the disabled list again with right shoulder soreness, McCarthy suffered a seizure at a restaurant in Scottsdale, related to the head injury, and was put on anti-seizure medication.

McCarthy lost 13 pounds after the seizure, and said he felt tired at the end of the year, which saw him pitch 135 innings and make 22 starts, right around his average for the previous three years. He was fed up and decided to make a change, so he talked to a neighbor in Dallas who ran a gym.

"I finally got to a point of realizing I needed to get bigger and stronger," McCarthy recalled. "I found a trainer who agreed. He said, 'Look at you, you have the upper body of a teenage boy. Let's try to get you bigger and stronger.'

The 6'7 skinny pitcher was too skinny.

""I don't think I was ever strong enough upper body wise. I don't think I was strong enough in the back or shoulder," McCarthy said. "I'm very tall and skinny and one of the general maxims of baseball is that you don't lift upper body as a pitcher and you don't do it the way I needed to."

McCarthy knew things were going to be different when in May he didn't feel any pain or discomfort in his shoulder. There would be no early disabled list trip this season, or one at all.

"I'm dealing with something different now, and I might be in the place I've wanted to be for so long," he recalled thinking at the time.

Not only did McCarthy change his offseason workout; he altered his routine throughout the season as well.

He used to throw every day in between starts, but in 2014 he wouldn't pick up a baseball for two days after his start, instead lifting weights to maintain upper body strength throughout the year.

"It was a combo of rest and heavy lifting," McCarthy said. "It worked really well last year. I felt fresh all the way through."

The result was 200 innings on the nose, nearly 30 more than he has thrown in any other year. His average fastball increased from 90.8 mph to 92.9 mph, per FanGraphs, and his peripherals — 175 strikeouts, just 35 walks, 3.55 FIP, 2.87 xFIP, 52.6-percent ground ball rate — were better than his 4.05 ERA showed.

"For us, the proof is in the pudding. He got over 200 innings last year. Just as informatively, he added 2 mph to fastball, which is pretty unheard of for a guy at his age, a starting pitcher to do that," Zaidi said. "Just his ability to strengthen his upper body, to make himself into a more durable pitcher, we feel pretty good about him turning the corner. He has the ability to carry that kind of workload into the future."

McCarthy agrees.

"I've gotten to about as confident as I can possibly be," he said of his right shoulder.

The Dodgers certainly hope so.