James McDonald to move to the bullpen?

As Travis Sawchik of the Trib reports, Neal Huntington admitted that James McDonald may not have a spot in the rotation when he returns from the disabled list.

McDonald has been terrible in his rehab starts, including a lackluster outing at Triple-A Indianapolis on Sunday. The 28-year-old righty went five innings, allowing eight hits, three walks, a home run and four runs (three earned). He struck out just one batter and threw 52 of 93 pitches for strikes. That’s not going to cut it, especially when Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Brandon Cumpton all present more reliable options. Not that any of those three — particularly the latter two — have blown out the competition, but that’s just how awful McDonald has been.

Even before going on the DL in early May for a sore shoulder, McDonald was ineffective at the big league level. He posted a 5.76 ERA and 6.07 BB/9 in 29 2/3 innings and it’s reasonable to believe McDonald may be seriously hurt — as in, unfixable over just a 15-day DL stint. His career average fastball velocity is 92.3 mph, which is a hair above the 90.4 mph he’s averaged in 2013. To that extent, his max velocity over his career is 97.5, but this season’s the peak number is 93.2 mph.

But let’s pretend for a second that McDonald isn’t hurt (anymore, maybe). Say he does come back and is inserted into the ‘pen: How does he fare?

Back in 2009, McDonald was actually used as a reliever by the Dodgers, who for some reason thought the 24-year-old, No. 56 prospect according to Baseball America belonged there at that stage in his career. He pitched to the tune of a 4.00 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 63 innings that season, but 13 1/3 were as a starter — a role in which he was horrid. So after eliminating those starting-pitching innings, earned runs (13) and hits (12) and walks (14), McDonald is left with a 2.72 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 49 2/3 innings (IF my math is correct) in relief.

Obviously that WHIP won’t cut it for a reliever; he surrendered 8.7 H/9 and 3.6 BB/9. But the 8.7 K/9 is pretty nifty.

Now consider that McDonald didn’t even have his best pitch at that time, lacking the slider he’s been using with exceptional success in the past two seasons.

It’s generally believed that a guy can thrive in a bullpen role if he has two plus-pitches. And usually, one of those is a hard, sinking fastball.

McDonald’s fastball has clearly slipped, but we’re pretending he’s healthy. If he can add a few ticks of mph to his velocity and sit at 94-95, he can combine that with a wipeout slider and solid curveball to offer a tough three-pitch arsenal.

McDonald has coaxed a 19.7 percent swinging strike rate with his slider. For reference, Atlanta’s dominating closer, Craig Kimbrel, has a 22 percent swinging strike rate on his slider. Now, Kimbrel also racks up grounders at an absurd 76.9 percent clip with the pitch, and his four-seam and two-seam fastballs are almost as nasty — that’s why he’s as awesome as he is. But McDonald’s ability to miss bats with his slider and curve (10.7 percent SwStr%) can allow his fastball to play up to a level that’s higher than it would be as a starter.

Though his curveball is excellent for inducing ground balls — 59.3 percent in 2009; 58.2 percent career — JMac struggles to keep the ball on the ground with any other of his pitches.

Conclusion:
No. McDonald probably wouldn’t become a force out of the bullpen. He doesn’t get enough grounders and his fastball seems to be regressing. Even if he somehow adds a bit of velocity to it with a move to relief, it wouldn’t necessarily make the pitch more difficult to square up.

Given his history, though, you could expect some improvement in preventing hits and walks. And with the recent addition of a great slider, JMac might even be able to boost an already solid K-rate out of the ‘pen.

I think he’d be worth a try as a middle reliever. Unfortunately, I don’t see his relief ceiling being much higher unless he somehow fixes his fastball and figures out how to get more grounders.

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