Last night James McDonald got off to a great start for the 2013 season. The right-hander pitched seven innings, giving up one run on two hits, with two walks and four strikeouts. McDonald didn’t always look as good as the stat line. In the early innings he looked a bit shaky, but the Cubs didn’t capitalize on anything. Soon enough he settled down, taking away any opportunity for Chicago.
Probably one of the biggest questions for the Pirates this year is which James McDonald will show up? Last year he had two completely different seasons. In the first half he looked like a Cy Young contender. He had a 2.37 ERA in 110 innings, with a 100:31 K/BB ratio. In the second half he looked like a guy who belonged in Triple-A. McDonald posted a 7.52 ERA in 61 innings, with a 51:38 K/BB ratio.
Coincidentally, his ERA in each of the last two seasons has been 4.21, even with the two completely different parts of the 2012 season. If you look at his advanced metrics last year, he had a 4.21 FIP and a 4.21 xFIP. The advanced metrics suggest what the pitcher’s ERA should have looked like, based on his performance. It’s rare to have a pitcher who posts the same ERA/FIP/xFIP across the board. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, outside of McDonald.
It would be easy to say that McDonald falls somewhere in between the two performances in 2012, and that the 4.21 ERA is what we can expect going forward. But what about asking whether McDonald can do better than that, and become something closer to that first half pitcher over a full season? I wrote about McDonald back in February, and pretty much took the stance of “we should probably expect the 4.21 ERA pitcher going forward”. A few weeks ago I talked to McDonald after one of his Spring Training starts, trying to get a feel for what led to the two completely different seasons.
“From day one I told myself I just knew I was going to go seven innings, eight innings. Whatever it was, I just knew I was going to have a good game,” McDonald said about the first half. “I was always thinking positive thoughts, no matter what. Even if I gave up a home run, next batter I thought ‘alright, I’m going to get this guy right here’. I never let negative vibes get to me. I was always positive, positive, positive. In the first half I had a bad game, but I wouldn’t let it affect me. I wouldn’t worry about it. In the second half I started letting it snowball on me. I started getting negative thoughts in me. And that’s where I think it all fell apart really.”
I always hear the “don’t try to do too much” line when I talk to players who are struggling. In most cases, it sounds like a pretty weak excuse. When you hear “don’t try to do too much”, it makes the game sound simple. It’s as if you would have more success if you didn’t try as hard. At least, that’s the way it sounds when that’s all you say. McDonald talked about his second half with the “don’t try to do too much” line. In the process, he gave probably the best example I’ve heard of what that phrase means, and why it’s not just a simple excuse for bad play, but an attitude that can help you follow up a bad result.
“At times I tried to do too much,” McDonald said. “If I had a bad game, the next game I’m going to throw seven innings with 15 strikeouts this time. I don’t have to do that. I can go six innings, give up two runs. A quality start.”
That’s a good approach to take, but at the same time it doesn’t answer whether McDonald can bounce back from a bad outing. It will probably help that he knows he doesn’t have to throw a gem to make up for a bad outing. But that doesn’t guarantee the next outing won’t be bad. One thing he’s got to work on is making adjustments in-game. When I spoke with McDonald, he talked about how he needed to be consistent with his mechanics, and fix problems immediately. That seems to be what he did last night. He didn’t have his best stuff early, but rather than carrying that throughout the game he made a switch and got into a groove.
A.J. Burnett has been an influence to McDonald, and will be even more of an influence this year. There has been a lot said about Burnett being McDonald’s mentor. That’s not just from an advice standpoint. At one point this Spring, Burnett was making a start at Pirate City. I looked over at the start of the outing, and noticed McDonald standing there in street clothes, on his day off, watching Burnett throw to minor leaguers. McDonald talked about how Burnett will be pushing him this year to be more like the first half version.
“I think last year he helped me out, and this year he’s pushing me more,” McDonald said. “Now that he sees what I’m capable of, he’s pushing me day in and day out.”
That’s three good things working for McDonald this year. He knows that he can have a bad performance and can follow it up with just a quality start. He’s focused on making quick adjustments in the game, which seemed to have worked for him last night. He also has his mentor, Burnett, pushing him to be more like the first half version. Most importantly, McDonald believes he’s more like the first half version.
“There’s no doubt both of those pitchers were me, first half and second half,” McDonald said, in response to my question about which version last year was more like him. “What was easy for me, what have you seen more of? To me, I think I’ve seen more first half ability than second half ability.”
For full disclaimer, I’ve liked McDonald since before the Pirates acquired him. I thought he would be a good piece in the Jason Bay deal when there were rumors in the summer of 2008 that the Dodgers were interested in Bay. When he was added for Octavio Dotel, I thought it was a steal. I’ve always felt that McDonald could be a number two or a number three starter. So if you’re asking me if I think he’ll be better than the 4.21 ERA baseline that seems to be set, then I would say yes. But I can say that I feel much better about that opinion knowing what McDonald is working on, and knowing that he has Burnett pushing him to be that first half pitcher.