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McDonald Rising

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 28: James McDonald #53 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during the game on May 28, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 28: James McDonald #53 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during the game on May 28, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In a start against the Washington Nationals on May 17, Pittsburgh Pirates starter James McDonald struck out nine of the first 12 batters he faced. In his next start on May 22, he whiffed eight in seven innings while allowing just a single run against the Mets. And in his most recent start on Memorial Day, the Bucs right-hander twirled eight shutout innings, striking out five and walking one in picking up the win against the Cincinnati Reds.

It’s been a heckuva month for McDonald, who finishes May with a 1.54 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 35 innings pitched. He limited to opponents to a line of .190/.242/.267.

This breakout performance has seemingly come from out of the blue. He’s had potential, but has never figured a way to harness that potential. What has hurt McDonald in the past is exactly what has hurt so many potentially good starting pitchers: walks and home runs. This noxious combo brutalized McDonald’s final stats in 2011 and push him way down draft boards for 2012. But something has happened… McDonald has flipped the script and has cut his walk rate almost in half and eliminated the long ball almost entirely.

The amazing details, after the jump…

In 2011, McDonald finished with a 4.1 BB/9 which led to an unsightly 1.49 WHIP. (His BABIP was .302, so assuming the walk rate was close to his natural performance, it wasn’t crazy to project another season of WHIP ranging between 1.45 and 1.55.) Through his first nine starts in 2012, he’s walking just 2.8 batters per nine.

An added bonus: As McDonald has sliced his walk rate, his strikeout rate has taken a giant leap forward. Last year he whiffed 7.5 batters per nine. This year, he’s at 9.1 SO/9. A nifty jump.

How has he done it? How has he gone from a 1.8 SO/BB rate to a 3.2 SO/BB rate?

According to PITCH f/x data, batters are chasing McDonald’s pitches out of the zone at a rate roughly two percent higher than last year. That’s not much. It’s certainly not enough to explain the improvement in SO/BB ratio. Maybe the answer can be found in contact rate. Last year, hitters made contact roughly seven out of ten times they chased a pitch outside of the strike zone. This year, that number has dropped to about five and a half out of ten swings. He’s not exactly fooling more hitters and getting them to chase more, but he sure is making them miss when chasing.

As you would expect with someone who has cut their walk rate, he’s also living in the strike zone more than before. It’s also worth noting he’s lost about a single mph off his fastball from last year. It averaged 92.7 mph in 2011 and is at 91.8 mph in 2012. Is that something he’s done on purpose and is it helping his command? I’m not sure there’s a correlation, but it’s worth noting I suppose. (More on pitch selection later.)

For the home runs, last season, McDonald allowed a whopping 1.26 HR/9. That was the ninth worst rate among qualified starting pitchers. A large part of that number was due to the fact he was more of a fly ball pitcher. In 2011, 42 percent of all balls in play were classified as fly balls. Hey, it’s only natural that some of those are going to leave the yard. It’s not like he was Bronson Arroyo, but McDonald’s 24 home runs allowed and his 11 percent HR/FB rate didn’t necessarily help the cause.

This season however, has been a completely different story. Through his first nine starts, for the first time in his career as a starter, McDonald is getting more ground balls than fly balls. His fly ball percentage is down to 36 percent and his ground ball rate is at 41 percent. That’s an almost mirror image from his 2011 batted ball performance. And while his fly ball rate has dropped, he’s keeping most of those in the yard, allowing just two home runs all year. That translates to a four percent HR/FB rate and a microscopic 0.31 HR/9. That’s the third best rate in baseball, behind noted worm-killers Jaime Garcia and Gio Gonzalez.

The key would seem to be a new found respect for his slider. It’s always been a strong pitch for McDonald, but this year he’s throwing it more frequently. According to data collected by Brooks Baseball, in 2011 he went to his slider a total of 149 times in 171 innings. This year, in just 57 innings, McDonald has thrown his slider 182 times. It’s accounted for over 18 percent of all pitches. It’s gone from his fourth favorite pitch to his second, behind only his fastball.

How good is his slider? Well, this year he’s gotten a swing and a miss 44 percent of the time it’s been thrown, and opponents are squaring it up for a line drive in just 8 percent of balls put in play. He’ll throw it to any batter at any time in the count, but it’s particularly devastating to right-handed batters, who have missed at exactly half the sliders they’ve offered at this season. The crazy thing is, this isn’t a new development. The slider has always been there for McDonald. This is the first time in his career he’s gone to it so often.

The improvement in home run and walk rate has led to a 3.19 xFIP. Not far off his 2.51 ERA. And miles better than his 4.46 xFIP he posted in 2011.

McDonald has always had the tools, but it looks like he’s finally figured out how to best use them to his advantage. This transformation has taken awhile, but it looks like the New and Improved James McDonald will be around for a long time.