James McDonald was an intriguing option for 2012, thanks to 2011 splits that portended a better future than past. Through his first four starts, McDonald posted a 10.13 ERA, and even though he was far better than that following the initial disaster, his ERA didn't fall under four until the end of July, 20 starts in to the year. This despite the fact that, from his fifth start of the year onward, McDonald owned a 2.68 ERA. A terrible start can mask progress, and McDonald had gone from horrible to promising quickly. Just not quickly enough.
He would finish the season with a 4.21 ERA and ERA+ of 88, this despite the 3.49 mark from April 27 through year's end, 25 starts later. He struck out 7.7 batters per nine in that stretch while punching out twice as many hitters as he walked, but he still allowed too many homers, especially given he was in a pitcher's park. That being said, he was 26, right-handed, and it was his first full season of starting in the bigs. There was a lot to like, especially given the positives came after a dismal beginning.
The 2012 season seemed to confirm that it was a positive to be optimistic about McDonald as well, as he began the year far differently than the previous season. McDonald posted a 3.2 K/BB in the first half, limited opponents to a .196/.258/.312 line, and struck out over eight batters per nine innings. Most importantly, he had chopped his homer rate in half from the 25 starts mentioned above, allowing 0.6 per nine in his first 17 starts of 2012.
It didn't last long, though. McDonald had been efficient in the first half, throwing 98 pitches per start and 15 per inning, but there was a dramatic change in the second half. He would throw just 92 pitches per start in his final 12 starts, but not because he was more efficient: because he was struggling, and was hit hard. After giving up just seven homers in his first 110 frames, McDonald allowed 13 in his last 61. He threw nearly 18.5 pitches per inning, a huge uptick that, over the course of the season, would have easily been the worst rate in the majors for a starter. Opponents hit .286/.379/.527 against him during that stretch, leading to the early exits, and destroying his usefulness as a fantasy starter.
So, which James McDonald are we expecting going forward? One caved at the beginning of the year, then was dominant with the occasional hiccup. The other was dominant nearly nonstop for three months, before completely falling apart immediately following the All-Star break. On July 7, McDonald struck out 10 against no walks. In the first start after the break, July 13, he walked five with just two punch outs. The change was immediate, and didn't let up, with McDonald posting a 7.08 ERA and 1.3 K/BB in the second half.
It'll be hard to tell until we get to see him pitch again. Command was clearly an issue, as even if McDonald threw strikes, they weren't quality ones. At draft time, though, it's likely no one will be thinking about how good he was in the first half. The memory that will stick -- and should stick -- is how disappointing he was afterward.
What should the plan be on draft day, then? Don't forget about him entirely, as he's a pick-up if you can get him late or for little of your auction budget, but don't try to jump the gun too much in the hopes you're right about a rebound. Because if the last two years have taught us anything, it's hard to predict when the good McDonald is even going to show up. He's in that territory where you would almost rather miss out and be wrong than spend too much (or too soon) and end up wrong that way.