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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.