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Pirates James McDonald Struggling – Fighting Through Learning Curve

McDonald has won three of his last four starts despite allowing 14 walks in that span. (Photo by Runneralan2004-Flickr)

In the first half of the 2012 season, the Pirates witnessed James McDonald solidify himself as the team’s co-ace along with A.J. Burnett. Through the past two seasons, McDonald has not been a good pitch, let alone a great one.  It was easy to see the potential the young right-hander brought to the table, but was also very frustrating to watch at times due to his erratic tendencies.

The Pirates traded for McDonald in 2010 and upon arrival flashed a live arm with plenty of promise, but endurance and consistency became a major issue for McDonald.

The majority of the time in 2011, McDonald could not effectively pitch past the sixth inning and many times the fifth inning.  Out of 31 starts in 2011, J-Mac pitched into the sixth inning 16 times and only twice managed to pitch seven-plus innings.

Coming into the 2012 season, the writing was on the wall for McDonald, as he understood that it was time to take the next step in his maturation of a starting pitcher.  Pitching Coach Ray Searage worked with McDonald in the offseason to fine tune his delivery.

“One of the challenges he had last year was the inconsistency of command early — the pitch efficiency,” Hurdle said. “We think that’s going to give him a better opportunity, more efficient with all his pitches.”

McDonald started the season with yet more confusing results, pitching 6, 5.2 and 4 innings in his first three starts.  The inconsistency was still there, but the dominance that James was capable of was there as well.

Then in the fourth start of the season, McDonald seemed to piece things together, as he took a no- hitter into the sixth inning against the Rockies.

In typical McDonald fashion, he struck out eight and walked three in seven innings that game.

“He didn’t throw a very good number of first-pitch strikes,” Hurdle said. “Had a large number of three-ball counts.

But, in between all that, he was efficient. He was sharp. He was very, very good.

That quote basically sums up McDonald’s existence as a pitcher up until this point, he was starting to become a mystery to Pirates fans everywhere.

He wasn’t a great pitcher yet, but his ‘stuff’ was capable of turning him into a great pitcher.  Since that Rockies game on April 25th, McDonald has pitched into the seventh inning eight times, including his first career complete game.

J-Mac had become the ace of this staff along with A. J. Burnett heading into the All-Star Break, but trouble has seemed to be brewing for McDonald in recent starts.

Despite winning three out of his four starts, McDonald has not been consistent, giving up 14 walks in that span.

There is a positive to take away from McDonald’s rough stretch, as he’s managed to keep it together on the mound and ultimately win games despite not having his most dominant ‘stuff’.  So, are McDonald’s recent struggles a trend or merely a young pitcher going through another learning curve?

It is very conceivable that McDonald has reverted back to the inconsistent, puzzling pitcher Pittsburgh fans have watched for two years, as 19 starts does not translate into tangible evidence either way.  But it is more likely that McDonald is just going through the maturation process that every young pitcher goes through.

It is impossible to know if this is a trend or growing pains, but judging by his ability to strike people out and the mentor-ship he’s received from A.J. Burnett, James McDonald will most likely adjust to this latest learning curve baseball has thrown at him.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, John grew to become a serious sports fan in a serious sports-town. While John is still a fan, he now puts his views into an objective and straight forward manner. John graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 2011. In addition to his work at Baseball News Source, John covers the Pittsburgh Pirates for SlewFooters.com, a Pittsburgh sports website that covers the Pirates and Penguins.