McDonald Excels After Leaving Bat Behind
Four years ago, James McDonald's pitching career was over.
After striking out 47 batters, walking 15 and posting a 3.33 ERA in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League as a 19-year-old in 2003, McDonald injured his right elbow that fall during instructional league.
"I didn't know what was wrong with it," McDonald said. "They sent me home early. I came back to spring training, still hurt, had an MRI and they said I needed to build up the muscle tissue in my elbow because it hyper extended too much. The X-ray revealed that there was something wrong with it, so I strengthened it up for a while. I started pitching again. The first outing I got on the mound and I was throwing like 88, 85 miles an hour maybe. And they were like, 'It's not the same, just go to the outfield.'"
So McDonald didn't pitch at all in 2004 and instead played outfield for parts of two Rookie-level seasons, hitting a combined .225. Hitting wasn't going to take him to the big leagues.
"It was OK, but I didn't have a passion for hitting the way I do for pitching," McDonald said. "I was in Ogden, I wasn't happy and I wasn't playing a lot. My arm was starting to feel good, like really good—it just didn't bother me anymore. I wasn't afraid to unleash it. So I asked my pitching coach if I could pitch. He said yeah, but the head coach wasn't for it really. So I understood, but the pitching coach took me to the side and let me throw bullpens anyway."
According to McDonald, 23, one of those bullpen sessions came in front of then-farm director Terry Collins, who decided to convert McDonald back to a pitcher full-time for the 2006 season. It was the position McDonald always envisioned himself playing, a belief buoyed by the confidence that Dodgers scouting director Logan White had in him as a pitcher.
"Logan White knows," McDonald said. "I have respect for him. I think he has a good eye for seeing what you're going to excel at. So he's the one who said he wanted me to be a pitcher—I wasn't going to argue with him. He knows."
Even though McDonald lost two years of potential experience the mound, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. McDonald got to rest his elbow for two years—he said he hasn't missed a start now in the last two seasons—and he has also learned from his experiences as a hitter to make him a better pitcher.
"I learned that you can throw an offspeed pitch in a fastball count sometimes and that would screw them up and make your fastball that much better-looking," McDonald said. "I saw some stuff that I didn't like as a hitter and I saw what some guys struggled with, and I tried to work on that when I came back to pitching."
Back On The Hill
McDonald, a long, lanky righthander at 6-foot-5, 195 pounds, has made quite an impression since returning to the mound. In his first season back on the mound in 2006, both his talent and his absence from the mound the last two seasons were evident. McDonald struck out 146 batters in 142 innings in the low Class A South Atlantic League, but he also walked 65 en route to a 3.98 ERA.
Last year, McDonald's command improved and he enjoyed an outstanding season. After posting a 3.95 ERA and a 104-21 K-BB mark in 82 innings for Inland Empire in the hitter-friendly high Class A California League, McDonald received a promotion to Jacksonville. He handled Southern League hitters, going 7-2, 1.71 with a 64-16 K-BB mark in 53 innings. McDonald credited Inland Empire pitching coach Charlie Hough with helping him make significant developmental strides.
"Last year I feel like I gained two whole years by playing with Charlie Hough," McDonald said. "He talked to me a lot—he's helped my mechanics, but he helped me a lot mentally too.
"To this day, if I have a bad start or something, I might call him because he knows me so well. He's seen me so much that he'll know what I need to fix, so I just work on that in my next bullpen."
Working off a three-pitch mix McDonald had a 3.90 ERA, 62 strikeouts and 19 walks in 62 innings this year. In a start at Carolina in late May, McDonald showed an 87-90 mph fastball, a curveball that was at times a hard pitch that reached 77 mph but mostly sat at 71-72, and a devastating 74-77 mph changeup.
Perhaps one reason for the quality of McDonald's secondary pitches is the size of his hands and fingers. "You shake his hand and he's scratching your forearm," Dodgers pitching coordinator Marty Reed said.
McDonald uses his extremely long, flexible fingers to impart spin on his curve and to maintain an easy grip on his changeup.
"My fingers will wrap around the ball so much that I can almost just grab the ball with my pinky finger and my thumb, and I can wrap them around for my curve," McDonald explained as he wrapped his fingers around the circumference of a baseball. "I could just have it sit here in my fingers and I won't really grip it."
His fastball isn't overpowering, but there's plenty of deception there to keep hitters off balance.
"If you watch the way the ball comes out of his hand, it gets on you a little bit," Suns pitching coach Glenn Dishman said. "I think it's just the way the ball comes out of his hand. You watch him play catch, he'll be throwing half-speed and the ball keeps carrying and carrying and carrying. Then he gets to the mound and you're like, 'It's not that hard, but man, it gets on you.'"
McDonald said Hough taught him to raise his glove-side arm and get his front side up to enhance the deception in his windup.
"If you sat on the side and watched him throw, you'd think, 'It's pretty good,'" Reed said. "But put a glove on and get down there and receive the ball, and then all of sudden—boom, the ball is on you. He has that deception."
Adding to his deception is a changeup that has developed into a pitch straight out of a cartoon. McDonald said he used to struggle when he would push the pitch, something Hough helped him with last season. Now McDonald maintains his arm speed on his changeup, which routinely comes in anywhere from 10-15 mph slower than his fastball.
If McDonald makes it to the big leagues as a starter with his current organization, he'll get another chance to hit every five days, and a great-hitting pitcher can make a difference in the National League. So how are those hitting skills?
"Not very good," Dishman said. "That's why he's a pitcher."