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 Fangraphs.com.

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 Fangraphs.com 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