What’s up with James McDonald?

After James McDonald’s roller coaster season in 2012, no one knew what to expect from him coming into this year.

J-Mac pitched well in his first outing of 2013, giving up just one run on two hits against the Cubs. A rough first inning forced him to surrender four runs against the D-backs, but he settled in nicely.

However, everything seemed to unravel for McDonald on Monday night against the Cardinals. A seven-run second inning forced him to exit after throwing just 46 pitches, and he was ultimately handed the loss.

As many people noticed, his main issue was velocity. J-Mac was barely touching 90 miles per hour, which is a few notches down from where he should be. He also wasn’t locating his pitches at all – low velocity and poor location is a recipe for disaster. Here are three fastballs he served up that led to last night’s downfall…

Allen Craig RBI double…

James McDonald vs. Allen Craig

Carlos Beltran RBI single…

James McDonald vs. Carlos Beltran

Yadier Molina RBI double…

James McDonald vs. Yadier Molina

All three were 90 mph over the heart of the plate for three of the Cardinals’ big hitters to feast on.

A logical assumption would be that McDonald is dealing with an injury. His loss of velocity is quite evident – his career average on the four-seamer is about 93 mph, but he’s been hovering around 90 mph this year. Another red flag is the removal of his slider. McDonald threw the pitch 17% of the time last season, but he’s used it sparingly in 2013. It’s hard to explain a few miles per hour off the fastball and the elimination of an effective off-speed pitch.

Injury? J-Mac says no:



He says he’s dealt with it to start the season before; here’s a look at the past three years (via Brooks Baseball)…

4/5 vs. STL: 93.34 average, 94.74 max
4/10 vs. COL: 92.87 average, 95.52 max
4/16 vs. CIN: 91.76 average, 94.16 max
Mean first three starts: 92.66 average, 94.81 max

2011 Overall Season Average: 93.52 mph

4/8 vs. PHI: 92.14 average, 93.74 max
4/13 vs. SF: 90.58 average, 92.41 max
4/18 vs. AZ: 92.79 average, 94.21 max
Mean first three starts: 91.84 average, 93.45 max

2012 Overall Season Average: 92.58 mph

4/4 vs. CHI: 90.13 average, 93.27 max
4/9 vs. AZ: 91.31 average, 93.02 max
4/15 vs. STL: 90.34 average, 91.31 max
Mean first three starts: 90.59 average, 92.53 max

2013 Overall Season Average: To Be Determined…

McDonald’s numbers are definitely a little down to start this season. His first three starts average vs. overall season velocity suggests that he could get a bit back on that fastball as the season goes on. But as we said earlier, he’s pretty much ditched his slider, which means his fastball has to be in top-shape. He’ll need to regain as much velocity as possible to find success.

Whether J-Mac admits the injury or not, the Pirates’ trainers are going to keep an eye on him. If everything holds up, we could be seeing him again on Saturday:

POLL: Who will be the Pirates’ fifth starter?

One of the many battles heading into spring training is for the fifth spot in the starting rotation.

The Pirates have stocked pitching depth for the upcoming year, but some options are currently unavailable. Francisco Liriano is likely to miss to beginning of the year; Charlie Morton is not expected back from Tommy John surgery until midseason.

Here’s what manager Clint Hurdle had to say about the situation:

Assuming A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, and Jeff Karstens are all locks for the rotation, who do you think will be the Bucs’ fifth starter to start the season? Please vote below!

If you believe the rotation should be configured differently or if you have anything else to add, please leave a comment below.

Go Bucs

Photo: artolog/Creative Commons

In 53 Days…

James McDonald‘ (53) days until Opening Day.

After a roller coaster season in 2012, J-Mac still expects to hold a spot in the starting rotation. His first half of last year was marvelous, but he was downright awful down the stretch. After the All-Star break, McDonald posted a 7.52 ERA and .292 opponent batting average, earning himself a demotion to the bullpen.

Three questions about number 53…

1. Will he separate himself from his 2011 and 2012 campaigns? While this seems rather vague, J-Mac has actually exhibited a weird trend the past two years – 80 earned runs in 171 innings both seasons. His identical 4.21 ERA in the same amount of innings is definitely an oddity; maybe he’ll find a new set of numbers in 2013.

2. Can he locate his pitches for an entire season? A weak 4.1 BB/9 in 2011 left McDonald focusing on controlling his pitches, and he certainly displayed improvements to start last season. He averaged less than two walks in his first 15 outings of 2012, but fell apart shortly thereafter. McDonald ended up walking four or more batters on six different occasions from July through September, and surrendered a season-worst seven walks in five innings against Houston on July 29th. He definitely needs to consistently locate if he wants to see sustained success.

3. If he flops once again, how many more chances will the Pirates give him? He’s started 71 games for the Bucs over the past three years, so there is plenty of evidence laid out. While he’s shown flashes of brilliance, there’s simply too much inconsistency to trust J-Mac every fifth day. He had a great first half last year, but he needs to translate that over an entire year. If McDonald struggles as much as he did down the stretch in 2012, it’ll be interesting to see how the Pirates handle him. There are some young pitchers (Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Justin Wilson, etc.) and swingmen (Vin Mazzaro, Jeanmar Gomez, Jonathan Sanchez, etc.) that could fill his spot if necessary. Don’t forget Gerrit Cole, either.

Go Bucs

Bill James 2013 Projections: Pirates Pitchers

Last week, we took a look Bill James’ projections for some of the Pirates’ offensive players. Here’s how the Bucs’ pitchers are predicted to perform in 2013:

A.J. Burnett 11 13 0 32 32 209 4.05 4.09
Chris Resop 4 4 0 61 0 72 3.75 3.52
James McDonald 9 10 0 31 31 172 3.87 4.06
Jared Hughes 4 5 0 67 0 76 4.14 3.83
Jeff Karstens 6 6 0 24 16 105 3.86 3.96
Joel Hanrahan 3 3 40 59 0 57 3.63 3.61
Tony Watson 4 3 0 71 0 58 3.26 3.81
Wandy Rodriguez 11 11 0 32 32 206 3.80 3.79

* This is under the assumption that most of these players will be back in 2013. Burnett and Rodriguez have guaranteed contracts. Watson and Hughes are still pre-arbitration eligible and should be in the bullpen again. Hanrahan, Karstens, Resop, and McDonald are eligible for arbitration.

A few quick notes…

A.J. Burnett is projected to regress a bit after his bounce back 2012 season.

Chris Resop and Tony Watson are expected to pitch similarly to past performances out of the ‘pen, while Jared Hughes‘ ERA is expected to be 4+.

James McDonald, who had the same number of innings pitched (171) and ERA (4.21) in 2011 and 2012, is predicted to lower his earned run average a bit and also throw one more inning.

– James has Joel Hanrahan‘s ERA jumping up to a concerning 3.63, but sees him reaching the 40 save plateau once again.

– If the Bucs decide to tender Jeff Karstens, he’ll be expected to pitch 105 innings between the rotation and bullpen (16 starts out of 24 games).

Wandy Rodriguez, last year’s trade deadline acquisition, is projected to produce a reasonable 11-11 record and 3.80 ERA.

These are pretty moderate projections; nothing to get too excited about. However, they are just predictions after all, so they could be very far from true.

124 days until Opening Day.

Go Bucs

2012 in Review: Starting Pitching

Veteran A.J. Burnett was a mentor for James McDonald and the starting rotation.

The Pirates’ starting rotation once again carried the team into July with a winning record, only to falter in the second half.

The top six starters in 2012:

Wins Losses ERA IP
A.J. Burnett 16 10 3.51 202.1
James McDonald 12 8 4.21 171.0
Kevin Correia 12 11 4.21 171.0
Erik Bedard 7 14 5.01 125.2
Jeff Karstens 5 4 3.97 90.2
Wandy Rodriguez 5 4 3.72 75.0

Other pitchers to make starts: Charlie Morton, Brad Lincoln, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson.

*Note that Correia and J-Mac have identical ERAs and innings pitched. McDonald also finished with the exact same ERA and innings pitched as he did 2011.

If you just looked at these numbers, you’d think that the starting pitching did a fairly decent job.  The weird thing about the Pirates’ starters this year this that they were so dominant for the first four months of the season that when they fell apart in August and September, the numbers pretty much evened out.  As a whole, though, this staff was much better than expected.  A.J. was unreal, Wandy came in at the trade deadline and was solid, J-Mac was one of the top pitchers through July, and Karstens continued to get better despite missing a large chunk of the season.  There are still a few uncertainties heading into 2013, but the starting pitching shouldn’t be a huge concern next year.