Feb. 23—MOOSIC — Jake McCarthy watches a pitch go by, then resets.
He's done this over and over this past year, a seemingly never-ending offseason of individual work that included a swing change.
Weight on his back leg. Hands locked and loaded. Head turned toward the pitcher. A deliberate leg kick builds the momentum, his bat dips back as the next pitch comes in and then ...
With everything in-sync, McCarthy uncoils and uncorks a line drive to the back of the net.
Sitting behind him, his older brother Joe looks up at a screen inside the PNC Field batting cage analyzing their hitting session, then throws his hands up.
"110!" Joe says, reading off an exit velocity neither of the Scranton natives reached to that point here.
Jake throws his fist in the air, then walks off. He's done for the afternoon. That's the swing he wants to carry him off to his first big league spring training camp.
"It was tough just sitting around all summer," Jake said. "You're hoping you get that invite (to the alternate site) and then you don't and there's no other secondary league or anything local around here for me to do. Think it just forced me to focus more on what I can be in control of, and that was just working out and taking batting practice and taking care of my stuff individually here."
Even though he was the 39th overall pick of the 2018 draft, the Arizona Diamondbacks didn't invite the 23-year-old to the alternate site for the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, where he could've gained valuable experience after missing a chunk of the 2019 season, too.
Now, he wants to show he belongs.
While Jake worked at home, Joe won a spot on the San Francisco Giants' opening day roster, and was their starting right fielder when they kicked off the season against the would-be-champion Los Angeles Dodgers on July 23, his major league debut. After a four-game stint, the Giants sent the 27-year-old down to their alternate site in Sacramento before designating him for assignment a month later. The Giants invited him back to big league camp this spring, where he'll have another shot to play his way onto their roster.
He wants to get back up there. He knows he belongs.
"Everyone up there is talented," Joe said. "Everyone up there, there's a reason why they're there. But at no point when I was up there did I feel overwhelmed or like I didn't belong. And obviously, I didn't play well when I was there, but I know that I belonged there."
Changing it up
It's been a while since Jake played in regular games.
An injury forced him to miss the second half of 2019, his first year at High-A. He returned for the Arizona Fall League, but got into just 73 games in his first full season as a pro. Then, 2020 hit and all minor league games were canceled. When Arizona didn't include him in its 60-player pool after spring training, it motivated him.
"I think anyone who's competitive kind of takes that as a wake-up call," Jake said. "It's time to improve on the things that probably prevented you from being one of those 60 guys."
He got stronger, adding 25 pounds over the hiatus to weigh in at 219 by the time he reported to camp. That helped with his main goal: hitting the ball harder and farther.
The process actually started around the all-star break in 2019, when during a game, Jake thought he tapped into something different at the plate. He made a few adjustments to his swing and liked the results, but it isn't easy to make major changes midseason. So, when he had nothing else to do at home during the pandemic, it turned out to be the perfect time to dive in head first.
He enlisted the help of former Scranton High School teammate Kraigen Rasalla to throw to him, and as soon as pandemic restrictions allowed, he got to work at Baseball U PA's facilities.
"He was just like, 'Hey, here's what we're doing, and this is how we're going to do it, and here's how I want to look. And if you see anything along the way, great. And I'm just going to keep taking video and we'll dissect it,' " Rasalla said. "He wanted to emulate some big leaguers that have had success and saw a couple things."
Jake stops short of calling this an overhaul, but these are the most significant changes he's made to his swing. His legs and hips are more involved and moving in rhythm, emphasizing his athleticism. He said his hands feel faster, so the ball even feels like it's coming in slower.
"Just more fluidity — I want to be able to swing and hit the ball hard with being under control, and I think when your entire body is incorporated in the swing, moving with rhythm, moving all in the same sequence, I think it's simpler, even though it might look a little like there's more going on," Jake said.
"People want effortless pop or effortless power. I want to be able to drive the ball while still being under control with my swing."
Jake took what he worked on to the Diamondbacks' instructs in October and earned rave reviews. Baseball America called him the team's "most productive hitter during the fall" before slotting him at No. 19 on its list of Arizona's top prospects.
"I played pretty well in instructs," he said. "But I still think there's a ton of growth and by no means have I arrived or I'm at my max capacity of what I can be, but I think I took a step in the right direction."
Joe thinks he took a step forward in his career, too.
That's obvious after reaching the pinnacle of the sport for the first time. But even though his tenure lasted just 10 at-bats, and even though he's still looking for his first hit up there, he came away feeling confident.
"Obviously, it could've went better, but I'm not upset with myself," said Joe, who celebrates his birthday today. "I never hung my head about it and again, I'm very happy with how I handled myself this offseason, just putting in the work, being able to be like, 'Hey, I'm going to get another shot at this.' So, I'm looking forward to the season."
After experiencing baseball in a pandemic, he's mostly hoping for more normalcy this year. Life at the alternate site couldn't match up with players' regular experience in the minor leagues. Some days, you might just take batting practice. Other days, you might see live pitching, but those pitchers were likely the same ones you saw the last time you played. Plus, they were your teammates. Joe's ready to compete against another team, in front of fans.
"We need it," Joe said of a normal season. "And not even in terms of being able to earn your way back to the big leagues. You just need reps at this point. So, this entire last season was by far the least amount of baseball any of us has every played, and now on top of that, if we go this year, too, now we're looking at three years without getting the reps you need to stay at that top level. We definitely need a full season."
Most of the McCarthys' local hitting sessions occurred at Baseball U PA, but toward the end of the offseason, they added a weekly trip to PNC Field's batting cage for a closer look at their progression. It features HitTrax, a system that relays metrics in real time that has become a staple of player development across baseball.
With each hit, Jake and Joe see their exit velocity, launch angle, projected distance and outcome of the play, among other things. It's set up for Yankee Stadium, so the lefties can see where their deeper drives are landing past the short porch in right field.
The brothers insist they aren't super competitive with each other, but with numbers popping up after every swing, it's hard not to be. The 110-mph ball Jake rips in this final swing is his best of the offseason, passing several he had in the 108-mph range. Joe wants a couple more swings, but can't top the 110, so Jake wins this round.
A couple days after Jake heads out to Arizona, Joe brings Rasalla back to PNC Field for another session. Shortly thereafter, Jake gets a text from Joe. It's a picture of the HitTrax screen.
The reading: Double, ground ball to center field — 110.6 mph.
Contact the writer:
@RailRidersTT on Twitter