Considering the 12- to 18-month recovery time from that surgery, in a best-case scenario, McCarthy won't be back until next May, more likely after the 2016 All-Star Game in San Diego.
"If everything lines up and it keeps feeling good and we're hitting every milestone that we need to, if I'm back in 12 months, then I'll be over the moon," McCarthy said on Saturday as the Dodgers prepared to play the Reds at Dodger Stadium. "If we have to take the time and do what we have to do to get back in 14 to 15 months, that's what we'll do. But if I can pitch in May next year, I'll be thrilled."
McCarthy had a rare full season in 2014 for the D-backs and Yankees, starting 32 games and, for the first time, logging exactly 200 innings. That success after countless shoulder problems and overcoming the trauma of taking a line drive off the right side of his head led the Dodgers to sign him last Dec. 16 to a four-year, $48 million free-agent contract.
McCarthy is no kid anymore. He last went on the disabled list for two months because of shoulder inflammation when he was with the D-backs in 2013. But at 32, McCarthy's 10-year career is clearly at a crossroads.
"I thought last year was going to be the new norm," said McCarthy, who was 7-5 with a 2.89 ERA in 14 starts after the Yankees obtained him from the D-backs. "I'm not a sunshine pusher for myself where I think everything is rosy, but last year felt like what it was supposed to feel like. I'd done so much work physically to prepare myself for that season. I thought we solved the shoulder issue.
"And this year I was fully confident that if the elbow thing didn't happen, it would have been another year of pitching and I would have been fine. I felt like I had gotten to a place where I could focus just on pitching and not on health, and I could keep improving as a pitcher."
Instead, McCarthy is back at an all-too-familiar juncture. Some of the injuries have been chronic and some were by sheer misfortune.
In 2012 with the A's, shoulder inflammation shelved McCarthy for nearly two months. Not long after his return, on Sept. 5 of that season, he was hit by an Eric Aybar line drive, causing an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion and fractured skull. McCarthy had emergency surgery later that evening that staunched internal cerebral bleeding, which almost killed him. That turned out to be his last start for the A's.
The next spring, after signing with the D-backs as a free agent, McCarthy was out to dinner in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Amanda, and suffered a seizure. For a moment, he lost consciousness at the table. There were reports that McCarthy hadn't take his medication, but he says that wasn't the case.
"After my [brain] surgery I wasn't prescribed anti-seizure medicine," McCarthy said. "Then I had the seizure and I've been on it ever since."
McCarthy is one of the most intelligent pitchers in the game, but the chemical cocktail he's taking -- and will continue to take for the rest of his life -- is so complex that even he didn't want to explain it.
"We don't need to go too far into that," McCarthy said. "There's so many different medicines and so many different combinations. It's something that you have to determine with neurosurgeons and go through each one and find combinations that work. Some have a lot of side effects. Some have none. You just have to find levels that can, not only manage the seizures, but assimilate to regular life so you can live with it."
McCarthy says as a pitcher he's learned to move beyond the fear of standing 60 feet, 6 inches from a batter who can inadvertently turn the combination of bat meeting ball into a weapon. McCarthy is well aware that two of his former D-backs teammates, Archie Bradley and Evan Marshall, were both struck by line drives to the head this season.
Bradley hasn't pitched much since Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez struck him with a 105-mph line drive at Chase Field on April 28, making only four subsequent starts and none since June 1. Marshall was struck earlier this month during a Minor League appearance, and like McCarthy, he suffered a fractured skull and underwent surgery. He's currently in Barrow Institute, a Phoenix neurological facility, struggling to recover.
If asked, McCarthy said his advice to them about coping with the fear of being hit again would be simple.
"I'd tell them to ignore it, which sounds callous," McCarthy said. "It somewhat worked for me. I don't really know how else to go about it. It's like pitching with an injury. You know it. You just don't let your brain dwell on that fact. It's the essence of being an athlete: you put failure aside, you push pain and fear aside, and just try to keep going. Something like that, the more you dwell on it, it becomes real and you keep reliving it."
McCarthy finds recovering from Tommy John surgery pretty mundane in comparison. There are no long-term goals. The prospect of pitching again in a big league game is too far away. He arrives at the clubhouse each day and continues his rehab while his teammates prepare for the game at hand and the continued pennant chase.
"It's not a physical slog, you feel fine, you feel healthy," McCarthy said. "It's just mental. It's dealing with not being active in baseball and not being able to throw and not being able to do the things that make you happy."