James McDonald is growing into the Pirates’ ace at age 27

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James McDonald pitched well for the Pirates in the one-and-a-half seasons after they acquired him from the Dodgers for Octavio Dotel in mid-2010, but so far this season he’s taken a major step forward at age 27 to emerge as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter.

McDonald threw 244 innings with a 4.15 ERA in 2010 and 2011, but after shutting out the Reds for eight innings Monday he now has a 2.20 ERA through 10 starts this year. And just as importantly his secondary numbers show a significant improvement that goes beyond ERA.

McDonald averaged 7.1 strikeouts and 4.0 walks per nine innings in 2010/2011, but this year he has 8.7 strikeouts and 2.6 walks per nine innings. He’s always had good raw stuff, but McDonald is throwing his straight fastball less and relying on his sinker/slider combination a lot more, resulting in 22 percent more missed bats and 10 percent more ground balls along with 35 percent fewer walks and a much better job keeping the ball in the ballpark.

Obviously 10 starts are just 10 starts, but McDonald’s performance looks much more like legitimate improvement than some sort of early season fluke and that would be a huge development in the Pirates’ never-ending quest for a winning record.

53-year-old Rafael Palmeiro homers in independent league ball

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It was announced earlier this month that 53-year-old Rafael Palmeiro signed a contract with the Cleburne Railroaders of the independent American Association, joining his son, former minor leaguer Patrick Palmeiro. The four-time All-Star went 0-for-8 to begin his stint with the club before launching a solo homer in the fifth inning last night. Check it out below.

If we’re being technical here, that was his first home run since July 30, 2005. He hit the homer off 28-year-old Trey McNutt, former prospect with the Cubs and Padres. Palmeiro made his major league debut in 1986, three years before McNutt was born.

Palmeiro told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic last December that he was thinking about a comeback, but he understandably didn’t garner any serious consideration from MLB teams. This comeback attempt might not lead anywhere, but hey, he gets to show that he can still mash while hitting in the same lineup with his son. Palmeiro did that once before with the independent Sugar Land Skeeters in 2015, though it was just a one-game thing. As for the Railroaders, the national media attention can only help them.

Palmeiro is one of just six players in MLB history to reach 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, but he’s been a disgraced figure in the game since a failed drug test for performance-enhancing drugs in 2005. He dropped off the Hall of Fame ballot in 2014.