From the holes at the 7- and 8- spots in the order to miserable second-halves from Jason Grilli and Jared Hughes; from questionable handling of the pitching staff by Clint Hurdle to a stunning lack of fundamentals throughout the line-up, the failures and disappointments were glaring, and they were everywhere.
Nothing, however, was more stunning than the post All-Star break performance of James McDonald.
J-Mac was a legitimate—and dominant—ace from April into July. He was 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA, a .196 batting average against and a 0.97 WHIP. When McDonald took the mound, he did one of two things: dominated or grinded. Either way, when he walked off the mound, he had given his team not just a chance to win, but put them in a tremendous position to do so.
In the second half, McDonald cost his team games. Plain and simple. Posting a 7.52 ERA, .292 batting average against and a 1.79 WHIP, his dominant moments were few and far between, and most disturbingly, he was almost never able to grind through innings. Every time things got tough, they snowballed. McDonald was an absolutely shocking five runs per start worse.
When a pitcher goes from an ace to a guy you simply can’t continue to send to the mound because he’s no longer giving his team a chance… teams don’t have an answer for that.
His brief and disastrous performances ravaged the bullpen. His disappearance weakened the rotation at the top spot and, by bumping everyone else up, it weakened the rotation from every spot from 1 through 5, especially at the bottom. His poor pitching even caused an incorrect assumption that his fellow starters also struggled. It admittedly felt that way at times… but it’s simply not true.
A.J. Burnett, Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens and Wandy Rodriguez were actually better in the second half than they were in the Bucs’ impressive first half.
Burnett won 10 games in the first half and just six in the second (with one start remaining). But his ERA in the second half was nearly half-a-run better (3.21 vs. 3.68); his batting average against (.238 vs. .248) and WHIP (1.16 vs. 1.30) also were better in the second-half of the season.
Granted, Erik Bedard was consistently bad before he was released, and Jeff Locke consistently struggled the second and third time through the batting order in most of his late-season starts.
But Kevin Correia, Wandy Rodriguez and Jeff Karstens (when healthy) were very steady all season, while putting up slightly better second-half numbers. Correia (3.50 ERA), Rodriguez (3.28) and Burnett (2.45) did exactly what veteran starters in a pennant race are supposed to: they were all at their absolute best over the season’s final month.
I’m certainly not putting the entire collapse on J-Mac’s right arm. Nor am I advocating that the Pirates quit on James McDonald. It’s worth a major effort to get him right – he clearly has the stuff, and he clearly has the drive. The guy went through major struggles on his path to the majors—he was moved from the mound to the outfield for nearly two full seasons—and battled through them. He’s not about to simply quit because things suddenly became difficult.
But while it’s impossible to say how things would have gone had he been the same pitcher in July, August and September as he was in April, May and June—heck, suppose his drop-off had only been severe rather than alarmingly awful—it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine the team posting a winning record, if not something far more meaningful, for the first time in two decades.