April 19, 2012
James McDonald, Professional Hitter
Welcome to the latest installment of the Baseball Prospectus Research Mailbag. This week, we’ll tackle Hall of Famers being selected in later rounds of the draft, the home team’s winning percentage in extra-inning contests, and the quirks of Matt Cain’s one-hitter against the Pirates last Friday. As always, if there’s a question you would like to see answered in a future mailbag, please feel free to send it in via email or through the “Contact Author” form (please remember to include your full name and hometown with your question).
Twenty-five current Hall of Fame members have been selected in the Rule 4 draft since its inception 47 years ago. The classes of 1965, 1971, and 1973 each produced three players who would wind up in Cooperstown, and no other class has had more than two.
In 1971, the Kansas City Royals used their second-round pick—the 29th-overall selection—on high school shortstop George Brett. The Phillies followed by taking Ohio University shortstop Mike Schmidt with the 30th pick. Both finished their careers ranked among the top 10 hitters of all-time in WARP.
Two years after Brett and Schmidt went back-to-back, the Brewers and Padres made Robin Yount and Dave Winfield the third and fourth picks of the 1973 draft. Since then, no other pair of Hall of Famers has been drafted with back-to-back picks.
The fourth round of the 1982 draft is the closest we’ve come to having a third set of Hall of Fame players taken with consecutive picks, though neither Randy Johnson (taken 89th overall by Atlanta) nor Will Clark (taken 90th by Kansas City) opted to sign with their drafting clubs that year. In 1986, Greg Swindell, Matt Williams, and Kevin Brown were drafted with the second through fourth picks, and the trio combined to be worth 108.2 WARP.
There are two answers to John’s second question about late-round Hall of Fame picks. Baltimore selected Dave Winfield with the 882nd pick (40th round) of the 1969 draft, but Winfield declined to sign with the Orioles and went on to star at Minnesota before becoming the fourth-overall pick in 1973.
Among those who signed, Philadelphia’s selection of Ryne Sandberg with its 20th-round pick (511th overall) represents the latest a future Hall of Famer has been taken in the draft. The brilliance of the Phillies’ late-round astuteness was, of course, dulled when they packaged Sandberg with Larry Bowa to acquire Cubs shortstop Ivan DeJesus in January 1982.
In 118,203 regular-season games played between April 18, 1950 and April 17, 2012, the home team owns a .539 winning percentage. Nearly 91 percent of those games have been completed in nine innings or fewer, a scenario in which the home team has been victorious 54.1 percent of the time.
When a game has required extra frames, the home team has not fared quite as well, winning 3.01 percent less often than in games completed within regulation. Aside from spikes in the 14th and 16th innings, the home team's winning percentage declines steadily as extra innings accumulate.
Sam’s question is inspired by Matt Cain’s outing on April 13, when he allowed only one base runner, Pittsburgh starting pitcher James McDonald. McDonald’s single to left field broke up Cain’s perfect game with two outs in the top of the sixth inning, but Cain retired the next 10 batters in order, preserving the one-hitter and the win.
Before we talk about the answer to Sam’s question, let’s take a look at the man who spoiled Cain’s run at perfection. Scouts were split on whether McDonald’s future would be on the mound or in the outfield when he entered the draft out of high school in 2002. The Dodgers selected him in the 11th round that year, but he elected to attend junior college and increase his stock rather than sign right away. McDonald’s performance at Golden West Junior College the following spring made it clear that he belonged on the mound, and Los Angeles got him under contract just days before he was scheduled to re-enter the draft.
It would be reasonable to assume that, given his athleticism and history as a two-way player, McDonald would be able to handle the bat reasonably well by pitcher standards. If that is your assumption, your assumption is very, very wrong.
Since 1936, 984 pitchers have made at least 100 plate appearances, and McDonald unquestionably ranks among the worst. Heading into his sixth-inning showdown with Cain, McDonald had reached base in only 10 percent of his career trips to the plate and had struck out in half of them.
James McDonald, Hitter
McDonald may have been one of the least-likely pitchers to break up a perfect game, but he wasn’t the first to do so. The last occurance was on September 21, 1986, when San Diego’s Jimmy Jones shut out the Houston Astros in his major-league debut. Jones gave up only one hit, a two-out triple to opposing pitcher Bob Knepper in the bottom of the third inning, while striking out five and walking none. Jones’ game score of 90 is the fourth highest of all-time for a pitcher making his major-league debut. Though he would go on to make 117 starts over the next seven seasons, he never matched the brilliance of his debut.
There is one peculiar detail about Cain’s game that bears mentioning: he wasn’t the first pitcher to lose a no-hitter or perfect game when the opposing pitcher reached base, but he was the first to surrender that base runner with two outs in the sixth inning. In each of the preceding four occurrences, the pitcher’s quest for perfection was dashed with two outs in the bottom of the third inning. Each and every time. I suppose that’s not as strange as it appears on the surface—if a pitcher is cruising through the lineup at the start of the game, his opponent’s ninth-place hitter is likely to first appear with two outs in the bottom of the third. But, still. Baseball!