First Pitch: Murphy’s Law and James McDonald in the Rotation

James McDonald had a great first half and a horrible second half in 2012.

James McDonald had a great first half and a horrible second half in 2012.

Pittsburgh Pirates fans have a tendency to expect the worst. It’s not really any fault of their own. In the last 20 years, pretty much every bad thing that could possibly happen to the team has happened. You reach a point where the team looks like a true contender in July, to the point where you actually believe it. Then the team has one of the worst collapses ever in the final two months of the year. It’s almost like the Pirates are a living example of Murphy’s Law.

The problem is that some Pirates fans take it too far. They allow Murphy’s Law to be their reality. Expecting anything other than the worst possible outcome is foolish and optimistic. It’s only realistic if you’re expecting the worst. Again, you can’t blame these fans. We’ve seen the worst outcomes in a great majority of situations over the last 20 years. But that doesn’t mean every situation going forward will only end up as the worst case scenario.

This off-season, James McDonald has become the poster boy for the Pirates version of Murphy’s Law. Every time McDonald is mentioned — whether it’s when the Pirates tendered him a contract, agreed to a one year deal, or just any talk about him being in the rotation — I always get a few comments about how McDonald is horrible.

The people commenting about how McDonald is a horrible pitcher are right — depending on which James McDonald you’re looking at. After the All-Star break last year, McDonald was horrible. He put up a 7.52 ERA in 61 innings, with a 51:38 K/BB ratio. Why would any team give a guaranteed rotation spot, and just north of $3 M, to a guy who puts up those types of numbers?

The answer lies in his first half numbers. Prior to his implosion, McDonald had a 2.37 ERA in 110 innings, with a 100:31 K/BB ratio. In the first half of the season he looked like an ace. It was like someone flipped a switch at the All-Star break and turned him into a 4-A starter for the second half.

If we go back a bit further, McDonald had a 4.21 ERA in 171 innings in 2011, with a 142:78 K/BB ratio. He had a 4.21 ERA in 171 innings in 2012, although his xFIP was worse in 2011 (4.46 vs 4.21). He saw slight improvements in his strikeouts, walks, and home runs. His BABIP in 2012 was lucky (.269 vs .302 in 2011) and his LOB in 2012 dropped to around the league average of 70.8%.

Looking only at the second half of McDonald’s 2012 season, and assuming that’s what we can expect going forward, is the wrong approach. Saying that McDonald shouldn’t be guaranteed a rotation spot because of that second half ignores the larger sample of results. It’s the same reason you shouldn’t say McDonald could be an ace this year because of his first half. He was two different pitchers, each for half a season, and neither version defines him going forward.

What we can expect going forward is probably closer to the overall results. The last two years he had a 4.21 ERA in 171 innings both times. Last year his advanced metrics lined up exactly with that 4.21 ERA. So if you’re putting expectations on McDonald for the 2013 season, that’s probably a good place to start. He probably won’t have a hot and cold season like he did in 2012 to get there. He also could end up better or worse than those numbers, but the 4.21 range is the most likely scenario. That’s the type of pitcher you pay $3 M and guarantee a rotation spot. It’s only when Murphy’s Law kicks in that McDonald starts to look like a guy who shouldn’t be guaranteed a rotation spot, and shouldn’t be making $3 M. Of course, that’s probably true of any player if you only look at their bad performances, and ignore everything else in their career that was good. Unfortunately, that’s what Pirates fans have been trained to do, just because the bad outcomes seem to be what always wins out.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. The 2013 Annual is also available for pre-sales. Go to the products page of the site and order your 2013 books today!

**Spring Training 2013 Position Battles: The Rotation.

**Tyler Gaffney Returning to Football.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Well stated and right on target. JMAC in little more than 2 years has started 71 games for the Pirates and has a 25-22 record. He came from the Dodgers as a guy they had relegated to the bullpen and were not going to give him another chance as a SP. 30 starts each of the last 2 years. He will pitch 2013 as a 28 year old and he should just be hitting his stride as a SP. BTW, he came in a trade for O Dotel, who the Pirates picked up as their Closer for next to nothing, and he proceeded to Save 23 games before the trade. A great trade scenario of buying low, and capitalizing on a positive effort at just the right time.

  • Uyerta36a7x

    I can’t blame Pirates fans for expecting the worst, but it annoys me when they make ridiculous claims. “The bucs wont win 50 games this year…” “Alvarez is the worst player in baseball…” etc. Atleast make it believable when you bash your hometown team.

  • leadoff

    IMO, the stats lie, I believe McDonald had a bad first half that led to the bad second half. I talked to the Pirates about this once and they did not have a clue what I was talking about.
    Why the bad first half?
    1. McDonald needs far to many pitches to get out of an inning thus wearing him down, he was throwing 95 first half of the year, 90-91 second half.
    2. The stat that the Pirates should use is the pitches/inning that McDonald throws
    3. It was celebrated when he went 7 or 8 innings, but the facts are when he went 7 or 8 innings he was doing it with an extreme amount of effort, much more than he should have been doing it with. Far too often he would get 2 easy outs and then struggle mightly to get that 3rd out.
    Having said this, McDonald has at least a 3 talent level IMO and as he ages he may become craftier and more efficient pitcher, I would in no means give up on him after last year, I just would not put much credence into last years stats. As A.J. Burnett put it, with McDonald it is all in his head.

    • AlvarezRiverBall

      In the first half he averaged 15.8 pitches per inning. That’s comparable to Jordan Zimmerman, Madison Bumgarner, Gio Gonzalez, Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos. He ended up averaging 16.4 pitches an inning. He never averaged 95mph over a course of a game.

      First half – 100 IP 31BB 76 H
      Second half – 61 IP 38BB 71 H

      In the 2nd half he couldn’t locate his pitches meaning he got behind in more counts and had hitters in more fastball counts. When you need to throw a strike you don’t throw it as hard and when you lack confidence in your pitch you don’t throw it as hard either. His poor production led to a lack of confidence as the article points out. It wasn’t an overworked scenario like you make it to be.

      • leadoff

        I did not say he averaged 95, he was hitting 95 often early in the year with control, but as the year went along he started hitting 95 with less control and less often.
        When I say pitches/inning, I am not referring to average pitches/inning, what I am referring to is bad innings, this is the problem with stats, it shows that he throws 15.8 pitches per inning and that is all you get out of it, average rolls in the 30 pitch inning and 10 pitch inning, the 30 pitch inning is the killer, those innings show up later in the year.
        The mental side of it comes into play when he can’t throw a bail out 95 mile fast ball and he has to rely on pitches that he can’t get over the plate. As I said he needs to become craftier and wiser and learn to pitch at slower speeds.

        • AlvarezRiverBall

          I’m not sure where you get your numbers but in 17 games and 100 innings over the first half he had 14 innings over 20 pitches. 2 over 30. 6 games had more than 1 inning over 20. 2 games with 3 innings over 20. These stats don’t prove he was tired or worn out from averaging too many pitches per inning.

          Again, his problem in the second half was he could not locate his fastball hence putting himself into too many hitter favorable counts which developed lack of confidence in his pitches and confidence to make a good pitch when he needed it. In the first half when he put himself into hitter favorable counts he had confidence to make the pitches and he did make those pitches.

          I’ll have to agree with the look the pirates gave you.

  • Nuke Laloosh

    “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical” Yogi Berra
    This especially applies to JM! If he ever breaks thru that “mental wall” he could be amazing. However, for every pitcher that breaks thru there are 99 they never will.

    • emjayinTN

      Nuke: Bull Durham – The best baseball movie ever, especially regarding developing a pitcher, and getting into his head. Was it Crash who told Nuke “Don’t think, it can only hurt the team” or something like that. Most baseball fans would not believe how true that movie was – a classic look inside baseball.

    • leadoff

      What separates ace pitchers from also rans is how they handle pitching when they have nothing, that is where the 90% mental really comes to light IMO.

      • Nuke Laloosh

        Don’t try to strike everyone out! Over throwing the baseball is a hurdle many young pitchers must get over. He tends to try to over throw at times instead of getting outs. You are correct leadoff and he had problems with that last year.