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