The Pirates' surprising rise to contention in 2012 has been fueled by excellent performances for their starting pitchers. Similar to during their strong 2011 first half, the Bucs have overcome sub-par play from their offense due to stellar pitching.
In 2011, Pittsburgh's pitching performance was clearly ripe for regression, and while they lasted until late July without falling back to Earth, that regression did eventually come. The 2012 edition has marked more longevity, as this year's pitching staff is striking guys out and maintaining superior peripherals.
The primary reason for this transformation has been James McDonald's development into a legitimate staff ace. The former Dodger has stepped up his game significantly in 2012 and has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. On top of that, he has given Pittsburgh fans a reason to believe in their team. He deserves to start this year's All-Star Game.
McDonald Holds His Own Statistically
By any metric, James McDonald has been one of the best pitchers in the National League this season. Entering Wednesday night's game against the Philadelphia Phillies, McDonald ranked in the top five in the National League in WAR, FIP, and ERA among qualified starting pitchers (via Fangraphs).
No other pitcher can make that claim.
In fact, among the top-15 National League starting pitchers according to WAR, McDonald's 2.19 ERA was the lowest. And this is not a case of McDonald being markedly lucky, as he sported a tidy 2.65 FIP as well.
Importantly, McDonald has also been extremely consistent. His Wednesday start against the Phillies was his worst of the year: McDonald gave up four runs in 5.2 innings on six hits, with three strikeouts against two walks.
He left with a four-run lead and the Pirates won the game.
While pitcher wins should not have any effect on individual accolades, the Pirates' success underscores a greater point: By not even having one truly "bad" start all year (this was the first time in 2012 that McDonald allowed more than three runs in a game), McDonald has given his team confidence that they will have a chance to win every game he starts.
It's no surprise he has become a "stopper" when this team has had a few bad games or a bad series.
McDonald Has the Stuff to Shine on a Big Stage
The All-Star Game is meant to be exciting, so the starting pitcher should be an exciting pitcher. Fans want to see the best hitters in the game trying to hit pitches that should be impossible to hit. Stephen's Strasburg's fastball is one example.
R.A. Dickey's knuckleball is another.
McDonald's arsenal of breaking pitches falls somewhere in the middle. In addition to a solid mid-90s fastball, McDonald has improved his arsenal to include both a curveball and a slider this season. When he is on his game, the combination can make the two pitches almost unhittable, as it is hard to distinguish between the two and pick up the exact break until it's too late.
Just ask the Nationals.
Fans love strikeout pitches, and at times there is no better strikeout pitch then a curve that drops from the middle of the zone or a slider that snaps back to the outside corner just as it crosses the plate.
McDonald can provide plenty of thrills in Kansas City if given the chance.
Something is Happening in Pittsburgh
The All-Star Game is about storylines. What better story is there in baseball than the Pittsburgh Pirates making a run at contention?
McDonald sits at the heart of the Bucs' turnaround, and his story is a perfect example of small-market success. The Pirates acquired him two years ago from the big-city Dodgers in exchange for Octavio Dotel, an overrated middle reliever. The Pirates' staff then developed McDonald, working on his command and helping him to add the slider to his arsenal.
Small-market team makes a shrewd trade, then invests in player development to help their acquisition improve from solid Major Leaguer to potential star. That sounds like Bud Selig's 2012 explanation for why teams like the Pirates can season in baseball's current economic climate to me.
For years, casual fans viewed the Pirates as an example of everything that was wrong with baseball. Now they have become an example of a lot of the great things about baseball: a team of young, energetic players who enjoy playing together and are finally winning. A marketable superstar who has embraced the city in Andrew McCutchen.
And then there's McDonald, an ace on a team that is not used to the concept. Yet the spotlight on the Bucs remains low, as if those who follow the sport are just expecting them to fall apart again instead of celebrating their success.
Something is happening in Pittsburgh. Major League Baseball would be wise not to ignore it.