What better way to commemorate Memorial Day than a Communism pun? Hey, at least McDonald didn’t pitch against Brandon McCarthy.
And just like we pounded down the Berlin Wall (well no, we didn’t, but go with it), James McDonald is pounding the strike zone. Worth bearing with me for the metaphor? No? It’s better than my other “pounding” joke…
With a walk rate above 4 per 9 entering the season lending to a career WHIP above 1.40, I never would have thought McDonald would’ve taken the strides we’ve seen so far. I just never had the faith.
But so far this season, McDonald is turning into a quality, consistent pitcher with the base paths staying empty. Sporting a WHIP under 1.00 and career best K and BB rates, McDonald is turning into a major post-hype starter. The lanky 27-year-old righty has all the peripherals to support the success with a normalized LOB%, 2.42 FIP and slightly lower than average .264 BABIP, but a slight uptick in ground balls and a low HR/FB% support the BABIP and low ERA. Can he keep it up?
I’ve seen McDonald pitch twice this season and was more than impressed. I decided to tune in the his start against the Reds yesterday afternoon (his second against Cincinnati) to see if there’s any regression once teams have seen some of his stuff. Here’s how he looked:
First Inning: McDonald’s first pitch is a 90-MPH fastball right at the letters taken for strike one by Drew Stubbs. McDonald misses with two straight off speed pitches, and goes with back-to-back fastballs, one taken and one swung on and missed, to strike out Stubbs. Up 1-2 on Wilson “Orange-Beard” Valdez, McDonald throws a nasty 76-MPH curveball barely dipping low for a strike and I’m surprised Valdez didn’t offer. Great pitch. McDonald is right back with a 92-MPH fastball Valdez swings through, and it’s two strikeouts to start the game. And as unhittable as McDonald’s fastball has been thus far, Joey Votto sits on one and slaps it opposite field for a single on the first pitch seen. So McDonald starts Brandon Phillips with a breaking ball in the dirt that Phillips still swings through, 0-1. Phillips was swinging at anything there. The next pitch is a 79-MPH slightly hanging slider that Phillips grounds to third to end the inning.
Second Inning: With two runs of support now behind him, McDonald goes right back with the fastball to start 0-1 against Jay Bruce. On the 1-2, Bruce handles an extremely well placed fastball on the lower outside corner for a single. Great hitting there – it was dipping away from the lefty as well. Again up 1-2, this time on Chris Heisey, McDonald throws a breaking ball that’s hit fairly sharply to third and gets the double play to clear the bases. Down 1-0 to Miguel Cairo, McDonald again goes fastball on the outside corner that’s fouled off. That one hit 93 on the gun, McDonald’s fastest, and the next pitch is a flyout to center, inning over.
Third Inning: McDonald gets another run of support, and now leads 3-0. The first pitch is a 90-MPH fastball that Ryan Hanigan smashes to left and it’s barely out of the reach of Jose Tabata and falls for a leadoff double. Tabata looked really slow there; maybe he didn’t see the ball very well. McDonald has trouble responding, falling behind 2-0 to Bronson Arroyo attempting to bunt, and misses again with a fastball, 3-0. And another miss, and Arroyo gets on with a four-pitch walk. Very bizarre – McDonald hadn’t had a 3 ball count until then. Back to the top of the order is Stubbs, who shows bunt as well, but McDonald keeps missing, 1-0. And yikes, 2-0, and out comes Barajas and Pirates’ pitching coach Ray Searage. McDonald almost gets Hanigan on a pick off, then gets Stubbs to bunt way too hard and McDonald is able to field and throw out Hanigan at third. Runners remain on first and second, but a huge out. And with a bit of swagger, McDonald gets ahead of Valdez with a fastball then a nasty curveball that dropped a foot and a half from eye level into the zone, 0-2. On the 1-2, McDonald throws a curveball that drops in there for a taken third strike, two down. With Votto sitting on the fastball last at bat, McDonald goes with the curveball and gets Votto to pop out weakly to center. Great bounce back inning for McDonald, keeping the Reds off the board.
Fourth Inning: Again with another run of support, McDonald gets Phillips to ground out on a curveball, one down. McDonald then dials up two straight sliders to Bruce who swings through both of them, 0-2. We haven’t seen too much of the slider, but it’s proving to be effective as well. At 1-2, McDonald elevates one at the top of the zone, but Bruce is under it and flies out weakly, two down. On 2-1 on Heisey, McDonald induces a little dribbler and Barajas throws out Heisey on a close play at first, and McDonald has his first one-two-three inning.
Fifth Inning: McDonald misses with a breaking ball high, then the next fastball is lined for a single to left by Cairo. McDonald again misses with the first pitch to Hanigan, then doesn’t get the call on a nice slider that looked like a strike, down 2-0. Hanigan sits on a fastball and gets one and lines it right back up the middle for consecutive singles. And just like the third inning, McDonald has runners on first and second with no outs. Let’s see if he can once again respond. McDonald again falls behind 2-0 to pinch hitter Mike Costanzo, but rears back and fires a great fastball that’s swung on and missed. Costanzo works it full, but gets under a fastball and pops out to short. McDonald then goes to a steady diet of fastballs to get ahead of Stubbs 1-2, then gets Stubbs looking on a fastball perfectly placed on the inside corner at the knees, two down. That might be McDonald’s best pitch of the day. McDonald then gets Valdez to swing overtop a curveball and roll it to first to end the inning with Votto on deck.
Sixth Inning: Falling behind 2-0 to Votto, McDonald has to give him a fastball and Votto gets a good hold of it, but it’s caught by Garrett Jones at the warning track. McDonald again falls behind 2-0, but Phillips slaps the fastball right back to him, and he fields the ball off his legs and throws Phillips out. It didn’t seem to hit McDonald hard and he’s fine. McDonald says enough of falling behind and gets up 0-2 on Bruce. Bruce spoils a few foul and McDonald loses two breaking balls high, but Bruce grounds out sharply to first on the 2-2. Another three up, three down inning.
Seventh Inning: On the first pitch of the 7th, McDonald gets Heisey to dribble one toward the first base line and McDonald fields it perfectly and throws him out. On the 3-1 pitch to Cairo, McDonald induces a weak fly to right, two down. And McDonald falls behind Hanigan 2-0, but again the fastball is flied out weakly to right, and it’s a 9-pitch inning and again three up, three down.
Eighth Inning: McDonald again falls behind 2-0 to pinch hitter Zack Cozart, but fights back to 2-2 and gets Cozart, unable to hold his swing on the curveball, for his fifth strikeout. There have been a lot of 2-0 counts McDonald has had to fight back from, but still only the one walk. McDonald gets ahead of Stubbs 1-2, and jams him up with a fastball on the fists that’s flared to right and caught by a diving Gorkys Hernandez, who entered the game on a defensive substitution. And what a great sub it was as Tabata looked horrible on that double by Hanigan in the third. Stubbs might’ve gotten a flare single there otherwise. McDonald goes right after Valdez, and on the 0-2 gets him to weakly ground out on the curveball. And McDonald ends his spectacular outing with three straight 1-2-3 innings and 12 in a row retired.
Final Line: Win 8 Innings 103 Pitches (65 Strikes)
5 Hits 1 Walk 0 ERs 5 Ks
Final Analysis: A just utterly dominant outing from McDonald… His only tough innings were the 3rd and 5th; his only walk that 4-pitch pass to Arroyo, who was bunting. Odd that that was his only base on balls. Of his hits given up, only one was a double, and would’ve been caught had Tabata been a little quicker to the ball. McDonald dominated the entire order save for Joey Votto, but hey, it’s Joey Votto.
With a plus fastball, slider, and curveball, on top of some solid deception in his mechanics, McDonald has everything he needs to be a top-tier pitcher in the NL. He was able to pound the zone with his fastball and locate the breaking stuff to keep hitters off balance. His slider and curveball look similar at the onset, then the slider bites down a few MPH faster while the curveball gets the string pulled and the bottom falls out. Those two pitches in conjunction with a great fastball gives McDonald a great arsenal. With a new reliance on that slider, it keeps hitters from being able to sit on the curve or fastball and I can see how that pitch can be credited for McDonald’s success this season.
The only real knock that causes concern is he does have some odd mechanics and sort of whips the ball to the plate. His delivery previously had me concerned he could lose his control if his release point gets jacked up, but watching his opponent Arroyo pitch, who is equally lanky and has a somewhat similar “slingy” delivery (even though he pitched poorly in this game, Arroyo does have a league leading BB-rate per 9), I think McDonald will be fine. He did fall behind 2-0 a number of times, but did only lose one batter on balls. He doesn’t have a consistent offense behind him, but if he continues to pitch this well he’s going to get his wins.
McDonald has been picked up in virtually all leagues that matter, but if he’s out there, grab him now. It might be hard to get him one-for-one because you’d be tipping your hand you’re a believer, but if you can subtly convince an owner to throw him in as a “sweetener” in a package deal (if you don’t listen to the Razzball podcast, WHY AREN’T YOU!?) he will be a huge contributor for you.