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McDonald’s Strikeout Stuff

Last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation couldn’t make batters whiff. Bucs starters finished dead last in the National League in strikeouts per nine innings pitched, a problem made worse by lousy leather behind those hurlers.

Pittsburgh was last in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls put in play converted into outs. Lots of balls in play, and a lumbering defense that turns would-be outs into extended innings– that’s enough to make any manager start puffing away like Jim Leyland to calm the nerves.

Luckily, the Pirates have at least one starter who can punch people out. James McDonald, pilfered from the Dodgers along with outfield prospect Andrew Lambo last July for Octavio Dotel, has a long history of missing bats.

A two-way star selected out of Long Beach, California, in the 2002 draft, McDonald was originally developed as a pitcher but moved to the outfield after suffering an arm injury. When he struggled to get the ball out of the infield, L.A. moved him back to the mound.

That was a wise decision. During his minor league career, McDonald has struck out nearly ten batters per nine innings. After coming over from the Dodgers last summer, the 6-5 righty showed off his strikeout stuff in 11 starts with the Bucs. He was the only Pirates starter to whiff hitters at a clip above the major league average. McDonald had 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings, compared to the 7.0 NL average for starters. The rest of Pittsburgh’s starters managed just 5.3 Ks per nine.

While McDonald couldn’t hit breaking and off-speed stuff, he sure can throw it. His fastball is no slouch, sitting around 92 MPH and topping out at 95, but the slow stuff is key to his Ks. According to TexasLeaguers.com, hitters whiffed about 15 percent of the time that McDonald threw his sweeping, mid-70s curveball, compared to the 12 percent MLB average for the pitch. His low-80s changeup got whiffs at a similar rate (13 percent MLB average). McDonald’s heater got a whiff at a league-average six percent rate.

The 26-year-old does have his flaws. McDonald’s control comes and goes, and he gives up a lot of fly balls, which could lead to homerun problems. However, PNC Park should help McDonald keep the ball in the yard. ESPN.com’s park factors show that PNC Park decreased homer production 20 percent compared to a neutral stadium last year. That means some deep drives hit against McDonald that would be souvenirs in others parks will die at the Northside Notch.

The Pirates hope that a full season of Jose Tabata in left field, more reps for Neil Walker at the keystone, and the free agent signing of first baseman Lyle Overbay will improve the team’s defense. But if the Bucs remain a bungling defensive squad, at least McDonald is adept at getting the job done himself.

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