On fantasy baseball draft day 2012 no one was buying Pirates’ hurlers. A.J. Burnett was hurt, Erik Bedard would be hurt soon (he always is – though surprisingly he wasn’t in 2012), and while James McDonald owned a good arm he’d yet to flash it consistently at the big league level. At the All-Star Break lots of people had interest in Pirates’ hurlers. Burnett was 10-2 with a 3.68 ERA, and McDonald was out of control good channeling Doug Drabek as he was 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA and 0.97 WHIP (Bedard made it through the half healthy but he went 4-10 with a 4.80 ERA). Things went south for the entire Pirates team in the second half, and no player typified that derailment better than McDonald who limped to the finish with a 3-5 record, 7.52 ERA and 1.79 WHIP over his last 13 outings. So who is McDonald? Is he the first half superstar, the second half loser, or the pitcher who overall went 12-8 with a 4.21 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 151 Ks in 171 innings pitched?
I usually don’t do this, but I’m going to give my answer before breaking down the player. Is McDonald an elite hurler? Certainly not. Is he so bad that he should be in Double-A? You know the answer to that is also a big fat no. That means, of the three categories I offered, that James is closest to the pitcher we saw for the duration of the 2012 season. I’m thinking Edwin Jackson like here, and if you owned McDonald you know what I mean as he was, at times, spectacular, and at other times spectacularly bad. Many will overlook McDonald on draft day because of his painful to contemplate second half numbers, but do yourself a favor and look at his season long numbers for the true picture. In fact, let’s compare his 2012 effort to his 2011 season. I know there isn’t one person in the world that would call McDonald consistent based upon his 2012 effort, but in reality, his season-to-season work was extremely consistent in a few key categories.
2011: 171 IP, 4.21 ERA, 0.92 GB/FB, 11.0 HR/F, 7.47 K/9
2012: 171 IP, 4.21 ERA, 0.99 GB/FB, 11.3 HR/F, 7.95 K/9
Remarkable isn’t it? And this brings up the point of perception. If you owned McDonald in the first half and kept your head about you, there was an understanding that McDonald was pitching well over his head and that at some point you would bail on him when things went south. If you turned away from logic and expected McDonald to keep up his first half run in the second half you were left as one angry, dispirited person. For the first group the perception is that McDonald just slowed down to become the pitcher he is (after all, look at the similarity in the numbers I listed above). If you were in the second ground you think that McDonald isn’t even a big league hurler, that he’s garbage, and that you would be a fool to look at him in 2013.
As I said at the top, I think the overall performance we saw last season is more of the hurler that McDonald is. His catastrophic failures in the second half, in my eyes, present a solid buy low opportunity in 2013. In addition to the similarities between his 2011 and 2012 numbers in a myriad of categories, there are a few other reasons to view McDonald’s 2012 season with a positive eye despite his deplorable finish.
McD recaptured half a K per nine innings over his 2011 mark, and his 7.95 mark is a strong number that is in excess of his 7.78 career mark. McDonald also cut his walk rate down to 3.63, about half a batter better than 2011. Those two moves allowed his K/BB ratio to go from a pathetic 1.82 in 2011 to a borderline passable 2.19 in 2012 (it was just under three tenths off the league average). As a result of the reduction in walks, his WHIP also went from an unacceptable 1.49 to 1.26 in 2012. That’s a better than league average number. Though his ERA was the same in both years, his SIERA and xFIP both say that the events under his control painted him to be a slightly better performer in 2012. Incremental growth from a guy in his second full season as a big league starter is encouraging.
I think McDonald can improve upon the numbers he posted the last two seasons. I also think that his draft day value will be beaten down by that dreadful second half so that McDonald will end up being available at a point in nearly every draft where he couldn’t help but represent a strong buy low option.
By Ray Flowers