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Quick look: T.J. McFarland stays grounded in Oakland A’s debut

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Oakland’s new reliever had a perfect inning in his first appearance Friday.

Oakland Athletics v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s didn’t make many additions last winter during the offseason, with no MLB free agents and only a couple minor trade acquisitions. They did find a new reliever through other means, though, claiming left-hander T.J. McFarland off waivers from the D’Backs.

A peek at McFarland’s career stats might not excite you, as he’s been average overall but with more bad years than good. But the key trait that he brings is his ability to generate ground balls, which he’s done at a 63% rate over his career. That’s the third-highest mark in the entire majors since he arrived in 2013 (min. 250 innings), behind only Zach Britton and Brad Ziegler, and tied with Sam Dyson. Click here for a full scouting report.

Why is that important? Because the A’s have the best infield defense in the game. Their highly decorated third baseman is the best overall defender in MLB at any position, their first baseman is the best in the majors at his own position with the hardware to prove it, and their shortstop is a multi-time Gold Glove finalist. Sending grounders toward these guys plays to the club’s single biggest strength, which is good for the team and also could help McFarland’s stats play up a bit — after all, the two times he was good, he was great, with sub-3.00 ERAs and sub-4.00 FIPs (in 2014 and 2018).

The Athletics Nation community did not share my enthusiasm about this pickup, and that’s fair enough. Perhaps I’ll indeed be mistaken about him and he won’t work out. But I’ve wanted a grounder specialist for years, and basically nobody gets more grounders than this guy. I want to see where this goes — and since they got him all the way back in early November, it’s been quite a long wait.

Finally, on Friday, McFarland took the mound for the A’s in a regular season game. On Opening Day, starter Frankie Montas only went four innings, so six relievers teamed up to fill the rest of the evening. McFarland got his call in the 6th.

The first thing to know about the 31-year-old is that he doesn’t throw hard. He totaled 13 pitches, and he topped out at 88.7 mph. Most of them were fastballs, which is normal for him, and the two sliders and a changeup he mixed in didn’t factor into anything.

McFarland also carries notable platoon splits, with a much better record against lefty hitters than righties. However, he hasn’t really been used a LOOGY much in his career, so the new three-batter rule might not affect him much. Indeed, manager Bob Melvin was able to find a good spot for him, facing two lefties in Tommy La Stella and Jason Castro surrounding a righty in Old Albert Pujols.

It took a couple pitches for McFarland to settle in, but on 2-1 he got La Stella to wave at a “fast”ball in the upper-inside corner and tap it toward Olson for an easy out. One batter, one grounder.

Next up was Pujols, the lone platoon disadvantage on the docket. Once again the southpaw fell behind, this time 3-0, but he worked the count back to full. The 3-2 fastball was admittedly a meatball over the plate, but that at least meant it wasn’t Ball 4, and all Pujols could manage was to pound it into the ground. It was well-struck but it went to Chapman, the best fielder in baseball, for another routine out. Two batters, two grounders.

Castro at least hit the ball in the air. but not in any useful way. McFarland jammed him with a 1-1 fastball and got him to pop a lazy fly to left. It wasn’t a third grounder for the hat trick, but it was a 1-2-3 inning. Statcast measured the expected batting averages of the three batted balls at .140, .080, and .010, respectively, so these were nearly guaranteed outs.

Purple dots: Pujols in the midde, La Stella up high, Castro on the edge
Credit: Baseball Savant

It will take many more outings to deem the McFarland pickup any kind of success (or failure), but at least we’ve now seen one real-life example of what that success would look like. Induce low-percentage contact toward your elite defenders.

McFarland’s Oakland debut was one of many positives from Friday’s game. His stuff may not look like much, and his track record has plenty of flaws, but he could end up being a perfect fit for this bullpen and he showed why on Opening Day. The point isn’t that he’s going to break out and become a star setup man or anything, just that for $1.8 million he has the chance to be an efficient, effective lefty arm in a contending bullpen.