Originally posted on Taking Bad Schotz  |  Last updated 5/30/12
The Pittsburgh Pirates are third in the NL Central, 22nd in attendance, and their offense is about as exciting as a piñata without candy.  Despite the lack of fanfare surrounding the Pirates this season (and every season really), James McDonald has been quietly putting up some serious numbers.  The 27 year old righty from Long Beach has been mowing down opposing hitters through his first nine starts.  In order to demonstrate just how good McDonald has been, let’s do a classic “Player A, Player B” comparison: Player A is James McDonald.  Player B has eight All-Star selections, 2 Cy Young Awards, and a perfect game to his name.  His name is Roy Halladay.  Halladay is not the only ace with which McDonald compares favorably to.  Among National League starters, only Gio Gonzalez, Zack Greinke, and Jaime Garcia have a higher WAR than McDonald, and all three have had an extra start to pad their stats.  The guy is becoming a frontline starter, seemingly out of nowhere.  He has already bested his previous season high WAR figure of 1.7, and he hasn’t had a higher K% (26.5%) previously in his major league career.  So the question becomes, is this production due mostly to luck, or has McDonald figured something out that is allowing him to miss bats while staying in the strike zone; A skill almost always indicative of an elite starter. One aspect of McDonald’s game that has evolved drastically this season compared to the rest of his career is his slider.  This is a pitch that he began throwing last season, trotting it out infrequently (5.1%) while he refined the pitch.  This season, it seems McDonald has grown more comfortable with his slider, as he has thrown it 20.5% of the time.  The results have been outstanding.  The slider has been his most valuable pitch according to linear weights (2.23 wSL/C), and adding a fourth pitch has greatly increased the effectiveness of his existing repertoire. His BABIP is a bit low at .264, but he has also increased his ground ball rate to 41.3%.  League average is closer to 46%, so he is allowing an above average amount of fly balls, but there are plenty of pitchers who do that and remain successful (Jared Weaver has a career GB% of 33.3).  I believe that his BABIP will rise a bit, but not to the level that some may expect.  In other words, he is due for a slight amount of regression but he will remain a very valuable starter.  In fact, if he continues to show the ability to throw a swing-and-miss slider, we may have witnessed the development of an ace in Pittsburgh. (this is from last year so add a dirty slider into this mix) -Albright
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