The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired right-hander James McDonald from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the summer of the 2010 season (along with prospect Andrew Lambo) for then closer Octavio Dotel. In his first full season as a starting pitcher in 2011, McDonald posted a 4.21 ERA over 171 innings.
The 27-year-old is looking to improve upon his 2011 season.
“He knows he needs to step it up,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “After a full season in the big leagues, you want to be able to master your craft. He’s got some people here who are going to push him. No starter wants to be the weakest link in the rotation. He had some very good stretches last year and he had a lot of growth in front of him to do…Command of the fastball is always going to be critical for James. It makes everything sharper and better when he has it. He’s a work in progress.”
The changeup was a pitch that McDonald worked on getting a feel for a lot during spring training. The right-hander said the pitch has changed over the years. When he was in the minors it started to change after he started getting more arm strength. McDonald, who uses a four-seam grip so it looks like a fastball coming out of his hand, said the pitch now has a little bit more fade action to it. It’s a pitch that can get McDonald out of a lot of jams.
Pitching, however, isn’t something McDonald has done his entire life. During 2003-05 while in the Dodgers minor league organization, McDonald was an outfielder. While with Los Angeles, McDonald bounced back from starting to relieving in the bullpen.
“He’s got one full year in the big leagues as a starting pitcher,” Hurdle said. “People forget he’s a converted player to start with. This isn’t a kid who’s been pitching since he was 6 years old. People grab me in the grocery store and say this and that. Hold on a little bit. You probably pitched more than this kid did growing up. He’s playing catch-up in a lot of areas. I do think [Erik] Bedard and [A.J.] Burnett have already gotten hands-on with him and will do more. James has a high ceiling.”
Starters Bedard and Burnett, who is currently on a rehab assignment, have a lot of veteran experience that McDonald can learn from. Combined, they have over 20 seasons in the Major Leagues. Burnett has a no-hitter, nine shutouts and also post season experience under his belt.
“Control the running game. Slow heartbeat,” Hurdle said on what Bedard and Burnett can teach McDonald. “You need to be consistent with your pace and your rhythm, so your team will play better defense. There are times when you’ll see pitchers spend so much time walking around the mound you’ll think they’re looking for [base runners] to disappear. They don’t disappear. You’ve got to get outs. You’ve got to make pitches or pick off somebody. You’ve got to do something proactive, something professional and something of major league caliber to get out of jams. They don’t just go away.”
“Bedard has that ability to really slow down a running game. Burnett has always had an edge when he’s on the mound. It’s good when these guys come to him with little nuggets of wisdom. It’s always better when it comes from your peers.”
Right-hander James McDonald has made two starts this 2012 season for the Pirates. In his first outing against the Philadelphia Phillies, McDonald allowed two runs on four hits over six innings, with two walks and three strikeouts. In his second start, McDonald held the San Francisco Giants to three runs on six hits with three walks and a strikeout.
“I believe that every time one of these guys takes the field its going to go well. That’s just the way I’m wired,” Hurdle said. “Nothing builds confidence like success. Especially when you’re young.”