James McDonald looked like one of the biggest surprises during the first three months of the season. His performance was a big reason for the Pittsburgh Pirates status as contenders in early-July. But, much like the Pirates, McDonald collapsed during the second half of the season. While he still had the best season of his career, his end of the season numbers look pretty ordinary. That should limit his value for next season, making him a solid sleeper candidate.
McDonald made some changes to his approach that gives credibility to his first half surge. Much of that improvement stems from the development of a slider. McDonald experimented with the pitch in 2011, but it emerged as a real weapon last year. Ben Duronio wrote up a great piece on McDonald’s slider, chronicling when he used it, and why it led to his success. Provided McDonald continues to utilize the pitch next season, and he should, as it was his best pitch, there’s reason to believe he can be effective again.
But we also can’t ignore what happened to McDonald over the second half. There’s some evidence to suggest that he tired as the season went on. Last season, McDonald’s fastball velocity peaked in June. His average fastball that month was 92.96 mph. Starting in July, when his decline began, McDonald started to slowly lose velocity. By the end of the season, there was nearly a one mph drop in his fastball. The loss in velocity doesn’t fully explain McDonald’s struggles, as he was still effective early in the season when he was still building velocity on the pitch.
Still, it was clear the pitch wasn’t as effective over the second half. From July to September, 12 of McDonald’s 15 home runs came on the fastball. The pitch was especially rocked over the last three months of the season. McDonald had a .489, .267 and .372 slugging percentages with the fastball from April to June. But from July to September, those numbers jumped to .796, .543 and 1.429. That’s a pretty significant difference.
There are a few explanations for McDonald’s slump. In a June 21 complete game start against the Twins, McDonald was allowed to throw 122 pitches. He pitched poorly in the following game, and was pushed over 100 pitches in the next five games. As friend to the site Jeff Zimmerman pointed out, McDonald began to lose steam during his July 13 start against the Milwaukee Brewers. Once McDonald hit about 66 pitches, his velocity started to fall. The following game, McDonald failed to regain his previous velocity. This stretch of games could be the reason for his second half struggles. He was pushed fairly hard over a period of six or seven starts.
If fatigue was the only reason for McDonald’s poor second half, there’s a decent chance he’ll rebound, at least early on, next year. He showed some flashes of effectiveness with the slider, and was derailed after being used too much. There’s some risk with McDonald, of course, and the velocity decline could be part of a larger issues, such as an injury. If McDonald looks good in spring training, and his velocity hasn’t decreased any further, he could be a good buy late in drafts.