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Hidden velocity … and must McDonald go backward to move forward?


PITTSBURGH – The blog is back, folks.

Yes, it’s been dormant for a while. Rob has had a lot on his plate. But I’m here as a reinforcement on the Pirates beat as a new hire. I was covering Clemson athletics for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier for the last four years, mostly football, but I’m a baseball nerd at heart so I’m excited to be here. (Worse offices than PNC Park). I like the blog medium, so I plan to be here  posting on an every day basis, and I hope to be interesting. Let me know if I’m not.

No long-winded introduction today, just an initial post as we prepare to watch Shelby Miller, the type of arm the Pirates hope to enjoy with Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole…..


Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller and Pirates starter James McDonald are both, long-limbed, 6-foot3, right-handers.  They both average 92 mph with their fastballs, well, McDonald did before this April.

AP file. Shelby Miller has hidden velocity. James McDonald does not.

AP file. Shelby Miller has hidden velocity. That’s good.

(McDonald again told the Trib that he feels fine following a side session Wednesday. We’ll see.)

But hitters react to their fastballs very differently.

Miller often generates swings and misses, hitters are late, as if Miller was throwing 98 mph lasers.

Conversely, McDonald’s fastball has been a below average pitch, even when he has his regular velocity, dating back to 2009, according to

Even though McDonald’s four-seam fastball velocity has dropped from 92.7 mph in 2011 to 89.8 this April, another pitcher with similar velocity, Arizona’s Ian Kennedy, is more effective with his fastball.

Some of the issue is command, but there is something else: release point.

Miller is regarded by scouts and prospect writers as having some of the best extension in the game. In short, extension is part of the mechanical process that results in where the pitch is released.

Miller has excellent extension and it results in not only the added benefit of the ball being released closer to home plate, thereby resulting in a de facto mph gain, but Pirates manager Clint Hurdle believes excellent extension results in something else as well.

“There’s good carry to his fastball through the zone. There’s exceptional finish,” Hurdle said. “The velocity? It’s not 98 mph but it’s firm 90s, 93, 94. He likes to pitch up the zone so that means there’s some finish to his pitch when you can pitch up in the zone and it’s not 95 to 98.”

Better life and hidden velo. Extension matters.

Homer Bailey showed excellent extension last night against the Phillies. It made his 95 mph fastball play up even  more. He shoved it.

Extension is great but of course it’s a characteristic that not all pitchers share.

Baseball Prospectus mechanics guru Doug Thorburn says McDonald has poor extension. Hurdle admits that McDonald’s delivery is still a work in progress.

The good news for the Pirates is that stud prospects Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole get better marks for the extension in their delivers.

At the end of the day big velocity is great. But extension results in hidden velocity and demonstrates that not all mph readings are the same.


McDonald is pitching backward more often early this season, meaning he is throwing offspeed pitches in fastball counts, and throwing offspeed pitches more often. This was noted in Baseball Prospectus today.

In 2011, Pirates starter James McDonald’s fastball averaged 92.7 mph according to and he threw the pitch on 54 percent of his offerings.  In the short sample size that is this season, McDonald is averaging 89.8 with his four-seam fastball and he is throwing it on 35.7 percent of his pitches.

Is this a pitcher with a new plan? Or a pitcher losing confidence in his fastball?

“When you don’t do good it looks like they lack confidence,” Hurdle said, “when they do well last season, like did a couple times, breaking balls early fastballs up top late then it looks like a confident guy that has command. You pick the one you want to go with.”

R.J. Andreson noted James Shield is great at pitching backward, throwing 46 percent of first-pitch breaking balls for strikes, and McDonald is having decent success at 40 percent.

But McDonald’s backward pitching has correlated with a drop in velocity, Shields’ has coincided with a velocity spike.


–          Travis Sawchik




  1. kr70 says:

    welcome travis, AJ is looking good so far, beatem bucs

  2. I disagreed with your game recap that Beltran hit a hanging curve ball for the first and only hit.

    The ball broke below Beltran’s knees——he just went down and got below it to lift it into right center. Good hitters sometimes get good at bats on average pitches. Not every hit off a curve is a hanger.

    Welcome to Pittsburgh and the Pirates. As an old ACC and Duke guy, I look forward to some lively discussions with you.

  3. rosko says:

    looking forward to your daily blog…huge Clemson fan..followed your Clemson coverage along with Ard’s and Larry Williams with rivals as welcome to the trib and keep up the good work in advance..

  4. Skip says:

    Travis – glad to have you reporting on the Pirates – this blog has been on life support.
    I used to live in Augusta and also had family in Seneca, SC, so I spent a fair amount of time following Clemson athletics. Plus I played baseball against Clemson too. Very nice area.

    Welcome aboard, and looking forward to following your work.

  5. TCB says:

    I am curious as to why McDonald”s delivery is still a work in progress. He is not a new or recently converted pitcher. IMHO, if he has poor extension (and he does), is it even possible for him to significantly improve and control?

    Welcome, Travis.

  6. RobertoForever says:


    For sure, welcome to Pittsburgh. Pirates posts at the Trib seem to get the lion’s share of the comments. I am sure with a daily blog on the Bucs, you will slowly gain a following.

    Looking forward to your enthusiasm for these Bucs and your daily insight.

    I assume you have a twitter account as well. Feel free to highlight it here. There are some folks who follow multiple mediums.

    Again, welcome.

  7. Lad9 says:

    Welcome to the Burgh. Glad to have you – especially with nice posts like that. That good extension – or what pitching coaches use to call follow through – is usually a sign that your mechanics are sound because you can’t do that when you short-arm the ball. And if there isn’t something wrong physically with J-Mac I will be suprised. Good luck in your new endeavor!

  8. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks for the welcome….

    Now let’s go to the video!

    It wasn’t an awful pitch, but it looked like Martin wanted a back-foot breaker and it caught a little more of the plate than desired. But Burnett gave credit to Beltran, noting he has great plate coverage.

    Burnett said after the hit he hollered this over to Beltran: “Why could you swing and miss one more time?”

    (Also, some questioned if a more adept RF could have made that play, but I’m not so sure — if fit the gap pretty well. Maybe Ichiro in his prime?)

    For most of the night Burnett had great command off his spike-curve. He’s been great thus far.

  9. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, Rosko. Larry and Chris do a great job. …. I plan on bringing the same #want and creativity to the Trib. Thanks for reading… I’ll be watching Clemson closely this fall.

  10. Travis Sawchik says:


    Great question. A question probably best answered by Ray Searage.

    This is how I understand it: to have ideal mechanics you have to be a pretty darn good athlete. You have to be balanced and coordinated, while also generating power and momentum. It’s a tough dance move.

    I think McDonald can make adjustments, but with it being this far into his career it’s reasonable to wonder if he lacks the elite, innate athleticism to have ideal mechanics. That’s not an insult, it’s simply that pitching is a difficult art form.

    Some of the late-inning power bullpen types (think Bruce Rondon) get by simply with high velo, which increased the margin for error, allowing pitchers to get away with less than stellar control.

    This is why McDonald would love to see his velo return. If you don’t have elite command you can get away with spotty control (and mechanics).

  11. Travis Sawchik says:


    Mechanical issues can be tell-tale signs of injury. I know Tampa Bay really monitors changes to mechanics to try and identify injuries before they occur and/or get worse. Now, Baseball Prospectus’s mechanics guru thinks McDonald’s mechanics have always needed refinement.

    Moreover, velocity tends to decrease as pitchers age, and it can also be down in the cooler early months of the season, but to see McDonald have such a decline certainly raises question marks.

    He said he felt “fine” yesterday. We’ll see.

  12. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks Roberto,

    This is my Twitter account: Sawchik_Trib. So please follow me there also (free info-tainment).

    I think blogs are a great place for analysis, observations, out-of-the-box modest proposals, and a medium where you can also have a little more fun. So, along with Rob’s and Karen’s postings here, I hope to build a thoughtful community here. I think we will each bring some different to the table.

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