September 16, 2010

James McDonald: Our New Ace

I'll be the first to admit that when James McDonald arrived in the Octavio Dotel deal, he was just one of a bunch of unknown names coming to the Pirates organization on trade deadline day. Six weeks later this deal already looks like a steal for Pittsburgh.

In eight starts McDonald has a 3.49 ERA. In three of those starts he allowed zero runs while pitching siz, seven and eight innings. He also has struck out 44 in 49 innings while batters have hit only .251/.318/.352 against him. Needless to say those are excellent results for an age 25 season.

Looking at McDonald's pitches (via Fangraphs), he's throwing his fastball at an average of 92.3 miles per hour - a drop off of only 0.5 mph since last year when he pitched primarily in relief. That's excellent as most pitchers lose a full 2 mph in the switch to starting. His curveball - more impressive than his fastball to the naked eye - shows a strong positive value as well. A below average changeup rounds out McDonald's arsenal as he's been one of the rare starters to succeed while throwing only three pitches.

McDonald has shown solid command, walking 3.3 batters per nine innings. He has also excelled at holding runners, allowing only two runners to steal while three have been caught.

Clearly this has been a great age 25 season for our new starting pitcher. I expect continued improvement in 2011. Nothing in McDonald's minor league numbers suggests that this season is a fluke. He consistently struck out over a batter per inning in the minor leagues while also exhibiting strong command. Moreover, he's doing this while only throwing three pitches. Subject to the Pirate's choice of permanent pitching coach, I'd expect him to round out his arsenal by adding a fourth pitch for next year - likely a cut fastball.

Octavio Dotel has been solid for Los Angeles, but it still looks like the Pirates really won out on the trade - even without considering outfield prospect Andrew Lambo, who also came over in the same deal. As we well know, high upside, high strikeout, young starting pitchers rarely come along. Add two more and we're good to go for 2011.

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