James McDonald and the mean thing about baseball

Real-life friend Jake made a solid baseball-reference discovery this weekend.

Here’s Pirates righty James McDonald’s 2011: 171 innings pitched, 4.21 ERA.

In the first half of 2012, something seemed to change for McDonald. He threw 110 innings before the All-Star Break and yielded a stellar 2.37 ERA, earning some of the credit for the Pirates’ early success. Analysts chalked up the difference to increased confidence in and effectiveness from his slider. Finally, some said, James McDonald became a pitcher, not a thrower*.

In the second half of 2012, McDonald pitched 61 innings with a 7.52 ERA. Notably — tragically, hilariously — in his last outing of the year, McDonald allowed three earned runs without retiring a batter. With that, he kept his season innings total to 171 and lifted his ERA to 4.21 to finish off his 2012 with the exact same totals in both stats as he posted in 2011.

McDonald’s peripheral stats improved slightly, so it’s unfair to say he endured an identical season. But looking at the largest sample available for James McDonald’s 2012 shows a pitcher indisputably remarkably similar to the James McDonald of 2011.

I think sometimes baseball nerds like me get so excited about regressions to the mean that we’re too quick to dismiss fluctuations in performance and the narratives that come with them. Baseball players can tinker and adjust and change, and they exist at the whims of so many outside factors. Maybe there’s something better than pure randomness to explain why Jeff Francoeur seems to start hitting every time he joins a new club, and why he reverts to being Jeff Francoeur shortly thereafter. Maybe McDonald did turn the proverbial corner in the first half of 2012, only to then turn three more corners and wind up right back at the intersection of Thrower Boulevard and League-Average Innings-Eater Avenue like so many players before him.

Or maybe McDonald’s first half and the stories that came with it provide only more examples of baseball’s wild sample-size caprices deluding us once again. And that might be depressing or it might be redeeming, depending on your angle.

*- This is among my very least favorite baseball expressions. I don’t think it’s entirely meaningless, it’s just used way too frequently, and too often as a stand-in for “is throwing more offspeed pitches” or “is walking fewer batters.” Also, it suggests the “throwers” in question don’t have any idea what they’re doing and are just chucking it, which is ridiculous. There are plenty of people who can throw in the 90s who will never sniff a Major League mound.

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