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2012 Fantasy Baseball Projections: What’s Wrong With Pittsburgh Pirates’ James McDonald?

Sun, Aug 12, 2012

Player Projections

One month ago, following his four-hit, 10-strikeout performance against San Francisco, James McDonald’s ERA was a minuscule 2.37.  The 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 310 big-league innings prior to 2012, McDonald owned a 4.10 walk rate. Through 17 starts before the all-star break this season, he was walking just 2.53 batters per nine. 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 had 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 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?

Well, he’s walking 6.10 batters per nine since the break. That doesn’t help. Also, he’s given up eight homers in the second half, one more than the seven he allowed in 17 starts before the all-star break.

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 & Tulowitzki-less): 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 & Joey Votto-less): 6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, BB, 4 K
  • Aug. 10: 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 again 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.

My first thought was that 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 140.2 and 171 innings each of the last two seasons.

McDonald’s velocity hasn’t taken much of a hit. 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-seamer has averaged 92.86, 91.18, 92.52, 91.48, 91.85 and 92.04 mph.

So if he isn’t wearing down, the most logical explanation is that the league has adjusted to him. McDonald’s new-found slider was a big part of 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, opponents have whiffed 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 needs to adjust to the league’s adjustment.

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 probably somewhere in between his best and worst. He’s not a sub-3.00 guy, but he’s not a 9.00 ERA guy 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 week against the Dodgers. 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-threes and above-average strikeout totals. Just keep an eye on his slider usage and walk rate.

Image courtesy of: Sports Crazy via Flickr

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