In what is likely to be the defining move of Neal Huntington’s tumultuous career as GM – and one that now has the organization in the thick of the NL Central playoff race – Pittsburgh shipped interchangeable and aging reliever Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers at the 2010 trade deadline, receiving in return right-hander James McDonald, who’s suddenly blossomed into one of the best pitchers in baseball.
To be fair – and perhaps pointing a finger of disdain at the Dodgers for not knowing any better, or at least for essentially giving him away for a replacement reliever – McDonald’s always been an intriguing pitcher throughout his professional career. Initially, he breezed through the minors rather quickly, flashing above-average strikeout rates and occasionally solid command. But he kind of stagnated in the Dodgers’ system at the end, a pitcher without a role as the team bounced him between starting and relieving.
Fast forward nearly three years, McDonald’s quietly become the fifth best pitcher in baseball, totaling 2.2 fWAR in just over 70 innings to go along with a 2.14 ERA, 8.96 K/9 and 2.52 BB/9. And, again, in fairness, the newest weapon in his arsenal – the slider – wasn’t being flashed pre-2010.
For a long time McDonald was the standard three-pitch hurler: fastball, curveball, and changeup. But he started experimenting with the slider in June last year, where he threw it only five times. And as the season progress, he began to throw it with more frequency: 5.4% in July, peaking at 15.1% in August, and then back down to 8.3% in September. Between those months, he flashed it 7.8% of the time.
His numbers prior to July 1 of last year were: 85.2IP, 4.52 ERA, 7.04 K/9, and 4.62 BB/9. His June numbers are included because, again, he only threw the slider one percent of the time. His numbers the rest of the way: 85.1 IP, 3.90 ERA, 7.91 K/9, and 3.58 BB/9. This isn’t to suggest that the slider caused the drastic improvement in his control because other factors are in play (like mechanical adjustments, regression, etc.). But the pitch did become a valuable weapon.
It was a called strike 25% of the time, the best rate among any of his pitches and hitters swung and missed on it 24% of the time, double any of his offerings. It was only put in play 11% of the time.
And, not surprisingly, he’s throwing it with a lot more frequency this season, almost 21% of the time. The numbers have changed a bit: 17% call rate, 20% whiff rate, 11% in play rate. But it’s become a force for him, maybe even his best pitch.
So, what’s behind McDonald’s rise? His slider. Truthfully, he’s been a bit lucky with the home run ball and his walk rate may jump a bit, but there’s no reason he can’t be a long term 3.5 to 4.5 win player now.
Note: Pitch f/x data was provided from brooksbaseball.net.
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