Arizona Diamondbacks Sign T.J. McFarland

DENVER, CO - JUNE 21: T.J. McFarland
DENVER, CO - JUNE 21: T.J. McFarland /

The Arizona Diamondbacks came into the day without a contract for their soft-tossing groundball machine, lefty T.J. McFarland. That’s been remedied.

The Arizona Diamondbacks came to terms with their final arbitration case, signing left-handed reliever T.J. McFarland to a one-year, $1.45MM deal today, per USA Today’s Bob Nightengale (via Twitter). The Diamondbacks also hold a team option for 2020, what would be McFarland’s final season of arbitration.

The Diamondbacks had a monstrous total of arbitration cases this season, coming to terms with ten players before the deadline for negotiation passed and any unresolved cases were submitted with bids from both sides going to the arbitration panel for review.

McFarland submitted a sum of $1.675MM, while the team countered at $1.275MM. The final number comes in a little on the team’s side, with a club option to boot. It’s not a huge payday for McFarland, but he does get a sizeable raise from the 850K he made last season.

As a reliever who hasn’t pitched much in high-leverage situations, his bargaining position was less than ideal, but it’s still a slight surprise to see the Diamondbacks get a team option on the soon-to-be 30-year-old reliever.

McFarland is coming off arguably his best season as a professional. He appeared in 47 games while accruing 72 innings and a tidy 2.00 ERA. His multi-inning ability out of the pen makes him a valuable long man for manager Torey Lovullo, especially as the Dbacks embark on another season of rotation uncertainty amid ever-shortening outing lengths for starting pitchers.

McFarland relies on his sinker the way most pitchers do their heater. He effectively pitches to contact by generating a ton of soft contact by opposing hitters. He’ll mix in the occasional slider or changeup, each with usage rates hovering around 13%, though he mostly resorts to the off-speed stuff against righties. Against lefties, there’s little doubt as to what’s coming: McFarland threw his sinker an amazing 85% of the time against same-handed hitters in 2018.

Here’s a fun stat: McFarland ranked in the bottom 5% of all major league pitchers in strikeout percentage for two years running, finishing in the 1st percentile in 2017 (when he stuck out only 12% of batters), bumping that number up to a “robust” 14.4 K% this year, putting him in the bottom 4% of all ML pitchers.

That’s par for the course for a soft tosser like McFarland, whose nominal fastball (sinker) clocked in at an average 90.6 mph. He’s maniacal about keeping the ball down in the zone, and he’s effective when he does. Opposing batters only mustered an 89.6 mph exit velocity off McFarland this season, placing him just outside the bottom 5% of the league.

Not surprisingly given the approach, McFarland is also a groundball machine. His groundball rate has stayed above 60% for four years running (as far back as statcast has the data), while over the last two seasons he generated groundballs at an over 68% clip – well above the 45.8 % league average (though Fangraphs lists his groundball rate between 67-68%).

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The Illinois native will be an important part of the pen for the next two seasons at least, though depending on how well the Dbacks fare in the first half of 2019, he could easily be one of the guys on the early trading block. At this point, however, with McFarland signed at an affordable rate for two seasons, Arizona should be in no rush to move him.

McFarland tends to get in games early, but he’ll mix-and-match late in games on occasion, as right now he’s one of only two lefties at Lovullo’s disposal, along with the oft-used Andrew Chafin.

The rest of the pen is made up of Archie Bradley and Yoshihisa Hirano – locks for the back end – while Silvino Bracho, Matt Andriese and Rule 5 pick Nick Green are on the proverbial bubble.

Robby Scott, Yoan Lopez, Jimmie Sherfy, and Jake Barrett are all 26 or older, and they’ll be looking to snake one of those spots with a strong spring. Since McFarland is out of options – and perhaps more importantly, effective – his spot in the pen is safe.

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With T.J. McFarland finally signed, the Arizona Diamondbacks have completed their offseason arbitration season. McFarland’s profile ages well, so while he’s on the verge of 30, there’s no reason to think he won’t be a part of the next contender in the desert. For now, the Arizona rotation can breath a sigh of relief, as when they get in early trouble, it’s likely to be McFarland who rides in to bail them out.