At the start of the 2013 season, James McDonald was one of the keys to the rotation. McDonald was coming off a 2012 season where he looked like an ace in the first half, and saw major struggles in the second half, leading to a 7.52 ERA after the All-Star break. With a lot of question marks in the 2013 rotation, the Pirates looked like they needed McDonald to step up and become one of the key contributors.
That didn’t happen, as McDonald put up a 5.76 ERA in six starts this season before going on the disabled list with inflammation and tendinitis in his right rotator cuff. Fortunately for the Pirates, guys like Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke stepped up, along with a ton of depth throughout the year, putting the Pirates in playoff position. McDonald is now making his way back in his rehab work, but because of all of the starting pitching options, he won’t have a spot in the rotation. The Pirates are bringing him back as a reliever, most likely joining the team when rosters expand in September.
There were warning signs at the start of the year with McDonald’s velocity. In three of his first five starts he posted the three lowest average velocities since the start of the 2011 season. McDonald said he had trouble getting and staying loose during his starts.
“It feels better than what it did before,” McDonald said of his shoulder after today’s rehab start in the GCL. “I would throw, but then I’d slowly start feeling, when I would throw, it would be really tight. Couldn’t loosen up really…Today I threw an inning, stopped throwing, went back out, it felt decent. I could go back out, get it loosened back up. It didn’t feel the same as how it did before when it wouldn’t loosen up. This is a positive step for me.”
McDonald said the arm issues started near the end of Spring Training, and he originally thought it was dead arm, which is something many pitchers will throw through until they bounce back to normal.
“It was a handful of games and I just pitched through it,” McDonald said. “I was just thinking I had a little dead arm. It kind of got gradually worse, and that’s when I said something. When I was rehabbing, it came back fairly quick, the same kind of stuff. Try to fight through it a little bit. And finally that’s when they said just shut it down for three or four weeks.”
When he was in the rotation early in the season, McDonald denied that he had an injury. Looking back now, he feels that his shoulder issues and the inability to get loose led to his drop in velocity, rather than what he thought was dead arm.
“I think it was,” McDonald said. “I think that was the factor. I couldn’t get loose. That was the main thing. I couldn’t get loose and ready for a game.”
He’s now getting ready for a bullpen role in September. The first rehab appearance didn’t go so well, with McDonald getting bounced in the first inning of work. Today he threw two perfect innings, striking out one. You always want to see good numbers, but the more important thing with the rehab is how a pitcher feels about his stuff.
“Compared to what it was, this is 100% better than what it was before,” McDonald said about his shoulder. “I felt pretty good. I felt comfortable in my delivery. Now I just need to see how I bounce back. How is this going to feel tomorrow or the next day. That’s the main thing really.”
McDonald was sitting 89-92 MPH today, which isn’t as high as some of his 2011-12 starts, but it was better than his numbers earlier in the year where he would dip closer to the mid-80s.
“It feels better than what it has,” McDonald said about his fastball and arm movement. “The feeling the way the arm is coming through the zone is the big thing for me. Before, when it’s coming through the zone, sometimes the effort that I had to put in it just to get it to whatever it was, it was like max, whatever I’ve got. Now I won’t have to put max effort to get the ball over at a decent [velocity]. It comes out and my arm feels better coming through the zone. Before I felt I was constricted.”
Out of the bullpen, McDonald will work off his fastball and mix in the curveball or the slider. He threw the slider a lot last year, and said that he might go to the pitch again as a putout pitch when he gets going. However, out of the bullpen it’s really about whatever pitch can get hitters out, which means McDonald will be taking a different approach than he would as a starter.
“If I’m throwing, and that slider is there, that’s going to be my go-to,” McDonald said of his approach out of the bullpen. “If I’m warming up and that curveball is there, and I have a good curveball that day, that’s what I’m going to go to. Out of the pen it’s not about you have to show your whole repertoire. It’s just about going in there and getting that guy out. If my fastball is what’s on, then they’re going to see the fastball. I feel like whatever is going to get outs at that moment, that’s what you’re going to go to.”
At the start of the year McDonald was being relied upon as a key member of the rotation. When he returns in September he will be viewed as a bonus. The Pirates have seen a lot of pitchers step up with solid performances this year, both in the rotation and out of the bullpen. It’s to the point where a guy who posted a 4.21 ERA in each of the last two seasons is being viewed as a strong non-tender candidate by most fans, and it would be hard to disagree with that. McDonald’s production in September will be a bonus for the Pirates, and he can use the month to try and show that he’s more like the first half 2012 version, rather than the version we’ve seen since. That month will be a big one for him, since he does look like a non-tender candidate, and his production down the stretch will probably determine what kind of offers he gets in free agency over the off-season.