James McDonald had a better season in 2011 than his 4.21 ERA might lead you to believe. While “breakout” might be a stretch as a definition, “breakthrough” probably works. He labored through his first four starts in April posting a 10.16 ERA in 18.2 innings. He threw six shutout innings against the Giants on April 27th and took off from there with a 3.49 ERA in his final 152.3 innings of the season. Even trimming those first four starts from his record, he still had his flaws in 2010, specifically walks (3.9 BB/9 in the 152.3 IP) and home runs (1.1 HR/9).
He started his 2012 season off much better with a 2.97 ERA in April. And he only got better from there. After seven innings of one run ball on July 7th against the Giants (with 10 Ks and 0 BBs), his season ERA was down to 2.37 and he had 100 strikeouts in 110 innings. More importantly, his walk rate was at 2.5 BB/9 and he allowed just 0.6 HR/9. In other words, he was having his breakout season. Then the wheels came off. A rough start in Milwaukee wasn’t really any reason to panic. After all, everyone has an off day. Even his six earned run outing in Colorado that followed wasn’t ringing alarms because Coors has destroyed pitchers all year.
But when he followed those two outings with two more awful ones against the likes of the Cubs and Astros, panic set in. He bounced back with a baseline quality start (6 IP/3 ER) in Cincinnati to start August, but then got torched for seven earned in just four and a third at home against the lowly Padres. For those keeping score at home, that’s three duds out of four against three of the worse offenses in all of baseball.
All told, he posted an 8.71 ERA in 31 innings across six starts pushing his ERA up nearly a run and a half (from 2.37 to 3.77). He still has 26 strikeouts (7.6 K/9), but also had 21 walks (6.1 BB/9) and eight (!) home runs (2.3 HR/9). His only homer-less outing in the stretch was the one in Cincinnati against the Reds. So what happened? Obviously his old issues came back to haunt him and wiped away a lot of the good work he had done in his breakout season. Let’s see what the data tells us.
The first place most people look when a pitcher is struggling is the radar gun. Has his velocity changed significantly? If so, why? Oftentimes a major velocity dip will signify a dead arm period or perhaps even a more severe injury that the pitcher is trying to work through on his own. With McDonald, there was no such change whatsoever with his fastball. His breaking pitches saw a velocity change, but they both increased.
In short, velocity wasn’t the root cause of his issues. The added speed to his breaking pitches might’ve flattened them out a bit and robbed them of some effectiveness, but his fastball velocity holding firm means he was likely plenty healthy and that there was some other reason for his ineffectiveness.
We looked at the velocity splits of his fastball from when he was on as compared to his run of bad starts. However, we know that velocity isn’t the only thing that makes a fastball effective. In the major leagues, even the hardest fastball has to have some wiggle or be placed perfectly otherwise it will eventually be caught up to and subsequently tattooed. The movement on McDonald’s heater didn’t vary much in the two samples which leaves his command. Was there is a difference in placement, specifically within the zone, of his fastball between his good and bad runs?
He was actually in the zone more during his hot stretch (56% to 52%), but look at how red it is down the middle of the zone during his poor stretch. No wonder batters went from a .707 OPS on plate appearances that ended on a fastball up to 1.092 while striking out less (12.3% to 9.4%) and hitting more home runs (1.7% to 6.7%). Hitting the fat part of the zone more often made hitters more aggressive and cut into his called strike percentage on the pitch, too, going from 33% down to 27%.
These fastball issues explain a lot of what went wrong for McDonald.
The curveball went from overwhelmingly dominant to very good and from what I saw it was because he would lose it for stretches at a time. For three innings it would look as sharp as it did in April through early July when it yielded an absurd .291 OPS and 34 strikeouts in the 79 plate appearances that ended on the pitch and then all of a sudden it would start flattening out in the fourth without warning.
I don’t think I have the eye or general know-how to say why or explain what was going on with his mechanics when it went from good to bad. I know a ridiculous, devastating curveball when I see one and I know a hanger that will be crushed by a historically bad hitter* against breaking balls. Exhibits A & B:
*Soriano has a paltry .595 OPS against curve since 2009
FRIDAY NIGHT IN ST. LOUIS
Given his recent trajectory, it was difficult to be psyched about McDonald heading into St. Louis for the series opener Friday night. They simply crush everybody even as they seemingly have three or four starters on the disabled list at any given moment. Alas, that’s why they play the games.
McDonald was excellent against the Cards getting back to what made him so successful for the first three-plus months of the season. His fastball command was the best it’s been in weeks while his breaking stuff was just dominant. Four of his seven strikeouts came on breaking balls (2 apiece for the slider and curve) and 23 of his 36 breaking balls went for strikes including nine called strikes (six on the curve). He ended up throwing six scoreless allowing just two hits and walking three.
He walked Jon Jay on five pitches to start the game and it was hard not to think, “oh boy, here we go again”, but he then induced a double play out of Allen Craig and a groundout from Matt Holliday to avoid any trouble. His other two walks both came with two outs. The sixth inning walk to Craig came on four straight balls with nobody on and perhaps he was pitching around him since Craig came into the game 3-for-8 with a double and a homer off of him while Holliday was just 2-for-9 with three strikeouts. Yes, I realize there is very little difference between those two minuscule samples and I don’t even know how often pitchers work on that level especially with such short samples against both, but it’s simply a (halfhearted theory). It could just be that he threw three lame pitches and one close one to Craig.
This was a very encouraging outing against a great opponent on the road so hopefully it spurs McDonald to be his April-early July self the rest of the way. In fact, it is imperative to the team’s success that he is that version at least skills-wise even if the ERA is closer to 3.37 than 2.37.