The Pirates currently sit at 48-95 and hold the worst record in the National League by 9 games and the worst record in the Major Leagues by 8 games. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Pittsburgh: young players like Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, and Pedro Alvarez all have star potential and could be the core that brings Pittsburgh out from their 18 season period of incompetence. All of that talent, however, is in the form of position players, and that, at least partially, explains why the Pirates have allowed 766 runs, the most in the league. Now, in the form of James McDonald, the Pirates finally have a pitcher who at least looks the part of an ace.
Back at the trade deadline, I wrote that the Pirates were big winners. A big reason for that was McDonald, who was acquired for only Octavio Dotel in what I consider to be the biggest steal of trading season. McDonald has rattled off eight fantastic starts for the Pirates since his arrival, striking out 44 batters in 49 innings, walking 18 and allowing only one home run en route to a 3.49 ERA and a fantastic 2.66 FIP.
This comes on the heels of similar numbers in AAA in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. It’s very unlikely that McDonald continues to suppress home runs at the crazy rate that he has so far, particularly given a tiny 30% ground ball rate, but his xFIP of 4.09 is still encouraging, and it’s also unlikely that his ground ball rate remains so low. He had a 44% ground ball rate in his first MLB stint (63 innings) and had a 39% ground ball rate in the minors, and so that rate should climb to around 35% as he pitches more major league innings.
McDonald’s peripheral numbers are actually quite similar to those of hard throwing left handed pitcher David Price of the Rays. Both have K/9 rates around 8.0 and walk rates around 3.5. McDonald has allowed fewer HRs this year in his small sample, but that’s unlikely to continue, as Price has a ground ball percentage in the mid-40s. McDonald’s fastball averages 92.5 MPH to Price’s 94.5, and Price’s arsenal contains a slider whereas McDonald relies on the curveball and changeup as his offspeed pitches. Both draw similar amounts of swinging strikes, with Price at 9.0% on his career and McDonald at 8.8%
Eight starts is nowhere near enough to say that McDonald can be an ace or that he’s the next David Price. Still, he’s shown tremendous potential and has a minor league track record to back it up. The Pirates haven’t seen much in the way of starting pitching talent in a long time. It’s looking like James McDonald will be the first step for the Pirates in their quest to put together a playoff-quality starting rotation.