Clayton Kershaw. David Price. Matt Cain.
Just a few among a long list of names of major league pitchers who were out-performed in the opening months of the 2012 season by a Pittsburgh Pirates starter in his second full season in the bigs. Yes, for half last season, James McDonald was one of the very best pitchers in baseball.
Being on the Pirates didn’t help his win total, but McDonald’s 2.37/0.97 ERA/WHIP, .194 BAA, and 2.6 fWAR easily made him one of the top-10 pitchers in the league right up to the All-Star break, which he entered riding a brilliant seven-inning, one-run, 10-strikeout performance.
McDonald was one of the biggest breakout stories in the game, and was elite with a capital-E.
But in the second half, the young Pirates righty was, without mincing any words, one of the very worst starting pitchers in all of baseball.
Of all the pitchers that imploded in the second half, no one had a worse ERA (7.52), and was less valuable (-0.7 fWAR) to their respective teams than McDonald was. He gave up four or more runs in a whopping eight of his final 12 starts, ending the season on a relief appearance and doing anything but, allowing three runs without getting a single out.
Jeykll and Hyde acts are not a new phenomenon in baseball, but few happen the way that McDonald’s did. Did he run out of gas? Did hitters figure him out?
More importantly, which James McDonald is going to show up in 2013?
The latter question is the most pertinent one for the Pirates, because any success they hope to have of contending as a dark horse will be deeply affected by how well McDonald pitches.
At least part of the answer can be chalked up to fatigue. Leading into the All-Star break and for two starts after, McDonald had seven straight starts of 100 pitches or more, including one where he threw 120 in a complete-game victory.
That will take a toll on most pitchers not named Justin Verlander, and in the second half, McDonald saw a significant decline in average velocity (from a peak of 93.2 in a June start to 91 in his final outing) of his fastball – a fastball which became his worst pitch. The number on the radar gun is something that the Pirates are going to keep a close eye on, because McDonald’s success may well hinge on the one-tick difference.
They hope that’s all it is anyway, and that there weren’t other significant issues from last season that would stop McDonald from rebounding with a full gas tank.
Whether he’ll pitch like an elite pitcher again next year is yet to be seen, but even if he does, expect the Pirates to keep a much closer look on his pitch counts in consecutive starts in 2013.