COMMENTARY | Baseball has always been a game of slumps and surges, peaks and valleys for both pitchers and batters alike. So it has been in the rocky career of Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher James McDonald, who lit up the National League during the first half of the 2012 season only to find himself currently getting destroyed by Double-A talent.
McDonald started the season solidly entrenched as one of the five starting pitchers going forward for the Pirates, but only started six games before being placed on the disabled list with shoulder issues. He made his first rehab start Monday, and it wasn't a restful Memorial Day for the man fans like to call J Mac.
He only recorded two outs against the Richmond Squirrels, walking the first two batters of the game before allowing a three run homer without recording an out. He finished the short outing after surrendering four walks and two hits.
This clearly isn't the same hurler who pitched to a 2.37 earned run average during the first half of the 2012 a season, a time when McDonald was garnering significant amounts of national attention for his play and almost made the All-Star team. He also recorded 100 strikeouts to only 31 walks in 110 innings pitched.
Then the bottom fell out in July. He pitched to a 7.52 earned run average in 12 games in the second half, giving up 51 earned runs in 61 innings pitched. It was as if a light switched had flicked and McDonald suddenly had no control over his command. There were all sorts of questions heading into this year about his usefulness in the rotation going forward.
Needless to say, his control and velocity problems continued well into the 2013 season where he currently owns a 5.76 earned run average after six games pitched. He's given up 29 hits in 29 innings along with 20 walks and three batters hit by pitches. His number of walks currently ranks as third most on the team despite the fact that he hasn't pitched since April 30. His 19 earned runs on the season also rank third on the team.
McDonald's overall numbers from the last two seasons don't tell the whole picture. He finished both the 2011 and 2012 seasons with a 4.21 earned run average after tossing 171 innings both years. But a closer look at his most recent stats tells a much more troubling story. His earned run average in the last calendar year sits at 5.52, a number that would be much higher if it weren't for his strong start to the 2012 campaign.
Indeed, his monthly earned run averages look something like this: July of last season he pitched to a 5.97 ERA, in August he recorded a 4.45 ERA. That number ballooned to a 12.75 ERA in September and October of last year to go along with his 5.76 ERA in April this year.
That's at least four full months of horrible baseball combined between the end of last year and the beginning of this season. His control and command are still nowhere to be found, evidenced by his embarrassing start on Memorial Day. Is his tenure as a starting pitcher over with the Pittsburgh Pirates?
It seems so. Despite a rash of injuries to other starters like Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens, it looks like McDonald simply won't have a spot waiting for him when he returns. At the very least, he'll likely be thrust into the bullpen for a long relief role at first, and probably won't get another shot at the rotation even if he flourishes in the pen. That's because Morton, who isn't pitching stellar baseball himself, is due back to the team soon, and it's expected that management could call up prospect Gerrit Cole by the end of this month.
The four other spots in the starting rotation are currently locked down with A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke. And where things stand now, it's hard to imagine James McDonald getting another crack as a starter as the once-promising pitcher seems headed to exile in the bullpen. And that's if he's lucky.
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.com on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.
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