Originally posted on WHYGAVS?  |  Last updated 5/7/12

James McDonald's last three starts have been excellent. He's pitched fairly deeply into all three of them, averaging seven innings a start. He's struck out 25 hitters in those 21 innings, walked just seven, and only allowed five runs in the three starts. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of one of them. He's looked a lot like the James McDonald that we've all been waiting to see since the trade in July of 2010.

Except that in some ways, he hasn't. When McDonald came to the Pirates from the Dodgers, most people (including me) said that the most important pitch for him was going to be his changeup. He's got a good fastball and an excellent curveball and on the nights when he used his changeup effectively to offset the two pitches, he was very good. On the nights that he couldn't locate the changeup, he was pretty bad. I've only been able to see bits and pieces of McDonald's three excellent starts, but all three of them have been marked by McDonald racking up strikeouts on breaking pitches. I had already been planning on working up a James McDonald PitchFX post to look into what he's done so well recently when I talked to my dad yesterday and he mentioned seeing an interview with Rod Barajas where Barajas mentioned that everyone talks about McDonald's curve but that it's his slider that's been his out pitch lately.

His slider? That surprised me. McDonald only threw about 150 sliders (5% of his total pitches) last year.  It's just not a pitch that I think of as a  "James McDonald pitch" if that makes sense. And yet, you only need to click the next tab over to see that McDonald's already thrown 82 sliders this year (16% of his pitches) compared to 84 curveballs. He's also throwing more two-seam fastballs and fewer four-seamers. If you break his pitch selection down by start (this is using the Gameday algorithm so it might not be 100% accurate), you get this (note: you can navigate out to his individual starts from here): 

  • April 8th - 25 four-seam fastballs (FF), 28 two-seam fastballs (FT), 17 curveballs (CU), 5 changeups (CH), 3 sliders (SL)
  • April 13th - 39 FF, 24 FT, 8 CU, 8 CH, 5 SL
  • April 18th - 30 FF, 20 FT, 12 CU, 3 CH, 14 SL
  • April 25th - 50 FF, 15 FT, 22 CU, 3 CH, 11 SL
  • April 30th - 18 FF, 29 FT, 31 CU, 8 CH, 28 SL
  • May 5th - 42 FF, 10 FT, 7 CU, 0 CH, 40 SL
We can quibble about whether the Gameday algorithm is mis-diagnosing four-seamers vs. two-seamers and curveballs vs. sliders, but it's obvious to me that McDonald's approach has changed quite a bit over the course of the season. Given what I've seen from the broadcasts, with AJ Burnett talking about McDonald and Burnett talking about Barajas, I can't help but wonder what sort of influence those two are having on McDonald and the pitching staff as a whole. Certainly, something's changed with McDonald compared to last year and while it's a small sample, it's fair to say that the early returns are quite good.
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