Mike Minor, James McDonald, and Tricks of the Mind

In the two drafts the Rotographs staff has done so far this winter, James McDonald hasn’t exactly been a hot commodity. In the snake draft, he was skipped entirely and he hardly fared better in the auction, where he went for just a dollar. Mike Minor, on the other hand, came off the board in the 15th round in the snake and was one of the intriguing $9 pitchers from the auction. Simply put, were a majority of drafts to happen in this week, Minor would be rostered in pretty much every applicable league while McDonald would probably enter the season as a waiver wire option.

Looking solely at the duo’s final numbers, that wide of a split seems odd. Minor looks the better of the two in this light, but the difference looks like it should be measured in rounds or dollars not drafted or not. Take a look:

Minor: 11-10, 4.12 ERA, 145 K, 1.15 WHIP
McDonald: 12-8, 4.21 ERA, 151 K, 1.26 WHIP

McDonald grabbed the extra win and about a start’s worth of extra strikeouts, but Minor has a clear advantage in the rate stats. Going beyond the normal category stats, Minor holds a slight edge in both walk rate – 7.7 percent to McDonald’s 9.7 percent– and line drive rate as his 20.9 percent sits fractionally ahead of McDonald’s 21.4 percent. McDonald has the better FIP at 4.21* and a slightly more sustainable BABIP at .269 compared with Minor’s 4.38 FIP and regression-ready .252.

Of course, with both Minor and McDonald, looking at the season holistically is going to give a skewed sense of the actual shape of their seasons. Both were so starkly split that it may be more instructive to look at the comparison of those splits rather than calling everything equal. The good and bad splits I’ve chosen here are not actually good starts versus bad ones, but rather an inflection point when each pitcher started performing very differently than he had been previously. For McDonald, that start was his July 13 start against Milwaukee; for Minor, it was his July 5 start against the Cubs.

Good McDonald: 17 GS, 110 IP, 9-3, 2.37 ERA, 100 K, .245 BABIP, 0.97 WHIP
Good Minor: 15 GS, 93.6 IP, 7-4, 2.21 ERA, 73 K, .223 BABIP, 0.86 WHIP

Bad McDonald: 12 GS, 61 IP, 3-5, 7.52 ERA, 51 K, .315 BABIP, 1.79 WHIP
Bad Minor: 15 GS, 85.6 IP, 4-6, 6.20 ERA, 72 K, .290 BABIP, 1.47 WHIP

Both were outstanding when they were good – I might even take the good McDonald over Minor since the difference in rate stats is more or less marginal and 27 strikeouts isn’t a trivial difference – and both were nearly unusable when they were bad. But this illustrates the first difference between the two: As bad as Minor was when he was down, he wasn’t nearly as bad as McDonald was. At the end of the day, however, it isn’t as though Minor was workably bad and McDonald was awful. Both were absolute anchors when they were bad, so there’s something else at work here.

My hunch is that there is some extended version of the serial position effect at work here as well. Players who have a track record of being good have a primacy effect, that is, we all remember them as good even if their recent form is less than stellar. The end of last season fits the recency timespan, which pushes the beginning of the season into the intermediate period, where memory tends to suffer. If I’m right, McDonald’s success would have come at a time that sits more or less as a black hole in the collective memory. Granted, this is playing fast and loose with a psychological theory, but I think it works here. It’s easy to forget the players who start the season well and then regress to the point that they’re dropped by August. It’s far easier to recall Brandon Moss‘ strong September than it is to remember that Ryan Sweeney hit .373/.394/.567 in April.

Also working against McDonald, I believe, is the fact that so many people missed out on the first part of his good season. He was drafted in something like 6 percent of mock drafts on MockDraftCentral, a trend I’m willing to bet was true in real drafts as well. As good as his first few starts were, he didn’t start posting gaudy strikeout numbers until the end of April. Data keeping on this type of trend is poor at best, but I’m willing to bet he wasn’t added en masse until at least May 6, the day after his quality start with seven strikeouts against the Reds, and it may have even been his 11 strikeout effort against the Nationals that spurred his mass ownership. In either case, the delay in rostering him means that most owners didn’t get 17 games of “good McDonald,” they got more like 10 or even fewer.

I’m not trying to argue that Minor should be going undrafted or that McDonald should be going for anything close to $9. Minor is younger, was a more highly ranked prospect, and has fewer red flags about him, though some BABIP-related regression is a virtual certainty in my opinion. McDonald does have some worrisome walk-related issues, but he absolutely has enough upside to warrant more of a late-round look than he’s currently getting.

*In fact, McDonald’s ERA, FIP, and xFIP were all 4.21 last season, which is why I am now starting an advocacy campaign to nickname him “Jackpot.” He shall be referred to as such from now on.

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Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

9 Responses to “Mike Minor, James McDonald, and Tricks of the Mind”

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  1. Bill says:

    Interesting, but Mcdonald had nearly the same line as last year and struggles to maintain a 2/1 k/bb ratio. That, combined with his heavy slider usage, mediocre team and nearly identical ratio’s to 2011 put him into the ‘we know what he is’ model, and a low 4 era 1.3 whip pitcher just isn’t valuable.

    Minor walks nearly a batter less per 9, and if he improves his K rate above 8 per 9 and drops that BB/9 down to 2.4 or so, then you could be looking at a low 3 ERA guy on a good team with a whip around 1.2. Of course, we don’t know, but compared to McDonald, better to take upside unknown over waiver wire material.

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  2. Jim Lahey says:

    Look at their splits by half of the year.. it looks like McDonald lost hope and Minor figured it out. I’d figure Minor would perform better next season – at least out of the gate. More confidence and it seems he has the results to prove it. Meanwhile McDonald threw 61 innings of 7.52 era baseball in the second half. Lost his control – walks through the roof.

    SSS and all, I’m not touching that but am interested in Minor. The .10 difference in WHIP is more significant than stated. There were only 15 qualified starting pitchers with a better WHIP than Minor last season – bad Minor included.

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  3. Joey Donuts says:

    Minor had a great 2nd half and Mcdonald had a bad 2nd half.

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    • Jon says:

      Honestly, it’s as simple as that.

      Bad second halves always raise huge question marks for fantasy owerns, while good second halves are more likely to carry over into the next year (at least it seems like they are — a true study in that last statement would be interesting to see).

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  4. JMN says:

    Another thing that probably helped Minor’s great second half, having a defensive star behind him in shortstop Simmons, he gets that for all of 2013. He also got the gopher ball behind him which means he either had a tell that he corrected or somehow had a better way of mixing his pitches to hide the tendency of batters to tee off.

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  5. kab21 says:

    Is it the case of how they finished the season or is McDonald undervalued because he’s a Pirate and he seems to have been around for a long time? I drafted McDonald 5 yrs ago in my dynasty and he finally has started to come around.

    FWIW – I would be buying on both of these guys in the 15th or so.

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  6. Brandon says:

    Minor’s a fly ball heavy pitcher with a great defensive outfield. Low BABIPs will be the norm for him throughout his career, I’d imagine.

    Pitchers with his profile hurt in ERA and help in WHIP usually.

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    • mpjroswell says:

      Agreed. Minor’s an extreme fly baller, so HR/FB rate is way more important to his success than simply assuming “regress the BABIP.” Running a list of pitchers who threw at least 130 IP in a single season between ’05-’12 who had a profile of 7+ K/9; GB % less than .4, and a HR/FB of 12% or less, Minor’s BABIP was certainly on the low end, but not all of the players on that list regressed to the mean. Chris Young, Ted Lilly, Matt Cain are all guys with similar profiles who have maintained a well below average BABIP. Minor’s gotta probably do it in one more full season before we start assuming that track record, but if he keeps HR/FB in that 10-12% range and keeps his K/BB ratio above 2.5, then profiling him like you would Lilly is certainly reasonable. Helpful at the back end of a fantasy rotation.

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  7. gbaked says:

    I have always hated drafting players on bad teams. I feel like they dont have as much to play for as the season goes on, and when it comes to pitchers… will get many less wins.

    For me, Minor being on one of the better teams in the NL and McDonald being on one of the less better teams (How the Arrghs do is gonna be an interesting storyline this year, but it would be shocking to see them better then ATL).

    Plus, Minor was awesome during the 2nd half.

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