One month ago, following his four-hit, 10-K performance against the San Francisco Giants, James McDonald’s ERA was a minuscule 2.37. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ right-hander appeared to be the steal of the season. The guy you drafted late or picked up in April who’d lead you to a championship.
McDonald’s pre-All-Star break numbers were more than any fantasy manager could have hoped for: 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 100/31 K/BB ratio in 110 innings.
His success was thanks in large part to his new-found control. In 311.2 big-league innings prior to 2012, McDonald owned a 3.53 BB/9. He was walking just 2.53 BB/9 with 17 starts prior to the All-Star break this season. He also picked up a slider, which has been his most dominant pitch.
So McDonald entered the All-Star break as a legitimate Cy-Young award candidate. He held opponents to three runs or less in 16 of his 17 starts, and two runs or less in 12 starts.
Since the all-star break, McDonald has been a disaster. He’s allowed at least four earned runs in five of his six starts, amassing an unsightly 8.71 ERA, 2.03 WHIP and 26/21 K/BB ratio in 31 innings.
What’s been the difference?
He’s walking 6.10 BB/9 since the break. He's also given up eight homers in the second half, one more than the seven he allowed in the first half.
What’s even more disturbing is that his recent struggles have come mostly against offensively-challenged teams:
- July 13 @ MIL (T-12th-ranked offense): 4.2 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 5 BB, 2 K
- July 18 @ COL (10th & w/o Tulowitski): 5 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 2 K
- July 24 vs. CHC (30th): 6 IP, 5 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 6 K
- July 29 @ HOU (28th): 5 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 7 BB, 5 K
- Aug. 4 @ CIN (16th & w/o Votto): 6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, BB, 7 K
- Aug. 10 vs. SDG (27th): 4.1 IP, 7 H, 7 ER, BB, 4 K
It’d be too easy to just say, “Well, McDonald will be fine once he stops walking guys and giving up homers.” The challenge is to find out why he’s walking guys and giving up homers to determine who the real James McDonald is.
Maybe he is wearing down?
McDonald pitched out of the bullpen in his first, full big-league season, but that was three years ago. Plus, he’s 27 years old—a baseball player’s statistical prime—and he’s logged 141 innings this season on top of 171 innings in 2011.
Is there a tell-tale sign of a loss of velocity?
According to Brooks Baseball’s Pitch f/x tool, his four-seam fastball has averaged 92.70 mph this season. In his last six starts since the all-star break, his four-seam has averaged 92.86, 91.18, 92.52, 91.48, 91.85 and 92.04 mph, meaning it hasn't really taken a hit.
The most logical explanation is that the league has adjusted to him.
McDonald’s new-found slider was a big part of his early success. Prior to the all-star break, he induced 53 whiffs on his new out-pitch in 17 starts (three whiffs per start). Since then, opponents have struck out just 12 times in six games (two per).
Perhaps opposing hitters have learned not to swing at McDonald’s slider and instead are taking it for balls, leading to his increased walk rate. If that’s the case, McDonald is now the one who needs to adjust.
If we pull back from this micro-analysis for a minute, it seems pretty obvious that McDonald was simply pitching over his head. His pre-All-Star break FIP was under 3.00. Now—just six starts later—that mark is approaching 4.00, while his ERA has jumped from 2.37 to 3.77.
So who is the real James McDonald?
The answer, as usual, is somewhere in between his best and his worst. He’s not a sub-3.00 ERA guy, but he’s not a 9.00 ERA starter either, as his post-all-star break mark would suggest. He cannot be trusted right now, so don’t even think about starting him this Friday against the Cardinals. Maybe he’ll show positive signs, but he’s bench material until he strings together a few good starts.
His long-term value is a bit more promising.
If he can figure things out, McDonald has a bright future. He was the Dodgers’ second-ranked prospect in 2009 and has an electric arm, so the pedigree is there. I mean, heck, he posted a 3.12 FIP in 2010.
If you’re in a keeper/dynasty league, it might be a good idea to buy low on McDonald for next season. He remains capable of an ERA in the mid-to-high-3s and above-average strikeout totals. Just keep an eye on his slider usage and BB/9.
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