After the first start of the year from James McDonald, I got a question. “What is up with his velocity? Is he injured?”
McDonald’s velocity was down in the first game of the year. He ranged from about 87-92 MPH, but averaged 89 MPH with his fastball. Looking at this chart from FanGraphs, it was the first time in the last three seasons that he’s averaged below 90 MPH in a game. He’s only averaged 90 once. That start came last year, in his second outing of the season. He was normal the rest of the year.
I didn’t want to speculate an injury. It was one start, and it was cold. It wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for him to have a low velocity, just like he did in the second start last April.
Then the second start came this year, and again his velocity was low. This time it didn’t have a wide range, averaging about 91 MPH and sitting 89-92.
Tonight was his third start, and once again the velocity was low. He was 88-91 MPH with his fastball, and mostly sitting 89-90 MPH. Two years ago McDonald was averaging 92.7 MPH on his fastball. Last year that dropped to 91.8 MPH. Heading into this game he was at 90 MPH, and that probably won’t change with this start.
After the game, McDonald was asked questions about his health. Tom Bragg has the details in his game story. McDonald didn’t want to answer the questions, and Clint Hurdle more or less avoided it by saying he hasn’t talked to McDonald about his health.
This is the third start where McDonald has struggled out of the gate. The first time the Cubs didn’t capitalize, and he settled down after a few rough innings. In the second start he was hit for a few runs early, but rebounded against the Diamondbacks and went five innings. This time around he was shelled early, knocking him out of the game and preventing any bounce back after his early inning struggles.
As noted above, his velocity has also been down. He doesn’t have the stuff he’s had in the past. Last year he had a 7.95 K/9 and a 3.63 BB/9 ratio. The year before it was a 7.47 K/9 and a 4.11 BB/9. So far this year he has a 5.93 K/9 and a 5.27 BB/9. He’s throwing a first pitch strike 43.8% of the time, down from 55% the last two years. He’s in the strike zone 42% of the time, down from 45-48% from 2009-2012. He’s not fooling batters, with a 5.4% swinging strike ratio. The last three years he’s been around 8.5%. Batters aren’t swinging at his stuff as much in general. He has a 39.9% swing percentage, which is down from 45-48% the last few years.
The velocity was down for the third start in a row. The ratios aren’t normal. Batters aren’t being fooled by his stuff, he’s not throwing as many strikes, and he’s not generating as many swings.
McDonald might not want to answer the injury question, but all of these things are red flags that usually point to an injury. When you see decreased velocity, it’s usually followed with an injury. When you see decreased velocity and a loss in command, that makes an injury more likely.
You don’t hope that a player is injured. However, in a case like this, eventually finding out that a player is injured is a sigh of relief. If it turns out that McDonald is injured, then that’s the answer. His lost velocity, the lack of control, the lack of opponents swinging at his pitches, the lack of throwing strikes — they can all be explained away with an injury that can hopefully be fixed.
The alternative is that McDonald is not injured. The alternative is that for an unknown reason he just tanked after the All-Star break last year, then lost velocity this year and got worse across the board. An injury provides an easy solution. There’s no easy solution if McDonald is healthy.
I’m not going to be surprised if McDonald eventually goes on the disabled list. All of the warning signs are there. I like McDonald. I’ve always liked his upside, even before he came to the Pirates. I still believe he can be a good starter in the majors when he’s got his normal stuff. I don’t believe this is his normal stuff. I don’t hope that he’s injured, but I do think there’s a good chance he is injured. What I do hope is that there’s a simple solution to these struggles, which would allow McDonald an easy route to get back to being more like the pitcher he was in the first half last year, and more like the pitcher I’ve thought he could become since the summer of 2008 when I wanted the Pirates to trade for him in the Jason Bay deal. Unfortunately, the only simple solution would be an injury. If I’m wrong about McDonald most likely being hurt, then those warning signs look much worse, because they point to a problem that has no obvious solution.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5. Thanks for all of you who ordered the books yesterday. Unfortunately I couldn’t hit up Sweetberries for the comeback win by the Pirates, since I was three hours away watching Francisco Liriano and Jose Contreras throwing in Jupiter.
**The Prospect Notebook is undergoing a change starting this week. Each day will cover a different team, with each team getting one article per week. Monday will have Indianapolis features. Tuesday will be Altoona. Wednesday will be Bradenton. Thursday will be West Virginia. Friday will be the extended Spring Training notebook. When Jamestown, the GCL, and the DSL start up, we’ll add those to the mix. Check out today’s Indianapolis notebook above, with notes from John Fredland, who covered the team this weekend. Tomorrow John Eshleman will have an Altoona themed notebook.