Rising MLB Star Learned A ‘Lifetime’s Worth of Stuff’ During Abbreviated UVA Career

March 29, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

When Jake McCarthy finished fourth in the voting for National League Rookie of the Year last Major League Baseball season, he joined Ryan Zimmerman as the only former University of Virginia Cavaliers to ever finish among the leaders for the prestigious award.

A major difference, though, is that Zimmerman contended for the honor with the Washington Nationals in 2006 after a decorated, record-setting career at UVA that is now forever stamped by his retired No. 11 jersey at Disharoon Park.

McCarthy, meanwhile, played more games for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2022 (99) than he did in his entire three years with the Cavaliers (85).

But don’t think McCarthy didn’t gain anything over his injury-shortened UVA career. In fact, the lessons he learned from being in coach Brian O’Connor’s program from 2016 to 2018 spurred him during a banner debut campaign in Arizona.

“That coaching staff and the good competition around me at UVA, they pulled a lot out of me,” McCarthy said, “and I think it’s helped me now for when I struggle and when things get hard. It’s a nice thing to look back on.”

The Diamondbacks will begin their 2023 season Thursday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Like last year, McCarthy is on Arizona’s opening day roster. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound outfielder was selected by the Diamondbacks with the 39th pick of the 2018 MLB Draft and quickly began earning a reputation as one of the fastest players in professional baseball.

But McCarthy’s speed only took him so far in the early stages of last season. He had a batting average of just .120 in April and was sent down to Arizona’s minor-league affiliate in Reno, Nevada, starting a two-month period during which he bounced back and forth between the minors and the big leagues.

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Candid portrait of Jake McCarthy during baseball game day
McCarthy flashed his superior speed and athleticism over his 85 games in a UVA uniform. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

That pattern finally stopped toward the second half of the season after McCarthy, called up July 11, not only played well enough to earn a stable spot with the Diamondbacks, but to be considered among the best first-year players in the game.

“After you get sent down a few times, you stop worrying about everything that can go wrong and you just go out and play,” he said. “And for the last three months of the season there, I was able to play every day and play at a pretty high level. It was kind of nice, but it was about gaining momentum and just realizing that, ‘OK, I belong here.’”

McCarthy finished last season with a .283 batting average. He hit eight home runs, had 43 runs batted in and stole 23 bases on 26 attempts.

His fourth-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting is the best by a former Wahoo since Zimmerman finished second 16 years earlier.

“He really got to the point where he matured and where failure didn’t hurt him as much,” said Pavin Smith, a UVA Baseball Hall of Famer who played in 75 games last season for the Diamondbacks. “Instead of freaking out when you get out, he was just very calm and collected. It definitely paid off.”

Patience has long been part of McCarthy’s story.

McCarthy came to UVA from his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, with visions of contributing to College World Series teams, something his older brother, Joe, did in 2014 and 2015.

But in the sixth game of his freshman season, McCarthy tore ligaments in the big toe of his right foot while colliding with the outfield wall at Disharoon Park. The injury required surgery, and he was sidelined for the rest of the year. In 2018, he missed 37 games for a wrist injury.

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In between, he had a stellar sophomore season in which he started all 59 games, stole an Atlantic Coast Conference-best 27 bases and batted .368 with five home runs, seven triples and 36 RBI. That UVA team went 43-16 and played in the NCAA Tournament.

“It doesn’t feel incomplete because I really enjoyed the memories I made there and everything I learned there,” McCarthy said of his UVA career. “It’s such a good school; it’s such a good baseball program to be a part of.

“Obviously, Joe went to multiple World Series and won a World Series, and that was kind of my expectation going there. And with the injuries and us coming up short, it was frustrating, but with time, those things kind of pass and you just remember the guys you played with and what you learned.

“I try to take a lot of those things with me in my career now.”

McCarthy handled the highs and lows of his rookie season with the Diamondbacks with a veteran’s touch. That advanced approach is something he gleaned from grinding through his toughest days with the Cavaliers.

“I failed a ton as a freshman,” McCarthy said. “The injury and everything I went through, that was all very frustrating for an 18-, 19-year-old kid. I was being held accountable and there were times when I thought it was moving too fast for me. But I’m grateful for that experience because it’s helping me now.

“I definitely learned a lifetime’s worth of stuff going through all that I did at UVA.”

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Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications