Last season, targeting a Pirates starting pitcher on draft day or even on the wire was ill advised for the vast majority of fantasy players. Sure Charlie Morton — 2.2 WAR, 5.77 K/9, and a 3.83 — didn’t have a horrible season, but when he was the Pirates best starter, there isn’t much upside left for the rest of the staff to aspire to. This season, Erik Bedard’s been pretty good, A.J. Burnett hasn’t been bad at all, and while they both would have been in contention for the title of Cy Young on the 2011 Pirates, they’re both sitting a ways behind the team’s ace, James McDonald.
The 27-year-old McDonald, who came to the Pirates from the Dodgers at the 2010 trade deadline in exchange for Octavio Dotel, started a full season’s worth of games for the first time in his major league career last year and did show some potential, but lacked anything resembling consistency. His five best starts by descending game score came in: May, September, July, April, and June; May was his best month by a wide margin, but it still wasn’t remarkably good, just better than the rest of his season as he was unable to hold opposing hitters to an OPS under .710 in any other month.
This year, however, McDonald started well and has seemed to pick up steam with each start. In his nine starts so far, McDonald has given the Pirates six quality starts despite having never allowed more than three runs. After modest (read: poor) strikeout numbers in his first three starts, he has struck out seven or more opposing hitters in each of his next six start, and is now setting down more than a batter per inning. He’s not quite a ground ball specialist, but his rate has climbed for the last three seasons and is now a respectable 42 percent.
So the proof is in the numbers, McDonald has been good so far this year. The question at this point in the season is, is this level of production, or something close to it, sustainable? The answer, as best it can be divined, is that he seems to check out. The obvious markers are in his favor: His BABIP is lowish, but nothing that is going to regress brutally; his FIP and xFIP are within about half a run of his ERA; and his strand rate isn’t unsustainably high. These are all good things to have in line, but they don’t ever paint the full picture for a surging or free falling player.
The strikeouts are a huge part of McDonald’s success and he doesn’t appear to be racking them up in a way either that hitters will figure out and be able to stop or that relies heavily on umpires’ consent. His fastball sits in the low-90s, but he’s doing most of his damage with his slider, a pitch he just added this season. Hitters can’t seem to make solid contact — if they make contact with it at all — which makes it his best offering with two strikes. There is a chance that hitters simply aren’t used to seeing him throw the pitch and will eventually catch up with it, but he’s throwing it just shy of 20 percent of the time and in this day and age of video and scouting, there isn’t a hitter getting ready to face him who hasn’t seen him throw it at least two dozen times. Nothing here points to a coming spontaneous regression from exposure and that’s risk with newly added pitches or altered deliveries.
Efficiency has been McDonald’s big failing so far, and while a drop in his walk rate from a 3.93 career rate to a 2.86 mark this season has been a big help, he still isn’t consistently pitching deep into games. He has been National League’d out of a few starts, like his May 17th start against the Nationals where he was pulled after just 86 pitches even though he had struck out 11 of the 22 hitters he had faced. He’s averaging just over six innings of work per start this season, which is why he hasn’t thrown a quality start every time he has taken the mound. In and of itself, efficiency isn’t a huge fantasy concern, but it does raise the potential a bad outing to become a WHIP and ERA killer if he comes out after five innings instead of going six or seven the way a more efficient starter might. Again, the fact that this is probably the biggest knock on him right now means that he’s in great shape, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point it out.
I suspect McDonald is owned in most serious leagues of 10 teams or more at this point as he’s owned in 62 percent of Yahoo! leagues and 86 percent of ESPN leagues. If he’s on the wire, he’d be a steal of a grab for anyone who needs pitching. For those playing in leagues where he is already owned, I think the best way to grab him will be as part of a package deal. A one-for-one deal, especially a like-for-like move, is likely to tip a savvy owner that McDonald has upside left, but sneaking him in as part of a larger move may be the key to picking him up at anything resembling a discount.