Darnell McDonald may just be the hottest Boston Red Sox player this spring. In 23 trips to the plate McDonald has 20 total bases, two home runs, nine hits and a fantastic .429/.500/.952 line. While that is by no means an accurate reflection of McDonald’s talents as a hitter, it is good timing for a player who is very much on the bubble after two years as a solid bench player for the Red Sox.
This off-season, when the Red Sox front office decided to acquire Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross, McDonald became the odd man out in theBostonoutfield picture. Prospect Ryan Kalish, who will begin the season on DL, is expected to be the future right fielder and both Ross and Sweeney represent an upgrade over McDonald defensively. That leaves McDonald as the sixth or seventh outfielder on the depth chart and being out of options, his hot spring may be the only thing that keeps him in aBostonuniform. McDonald may not a superb defender and he has been a below average offensive player in his career, but a decent 2010 season combined with his versatility and strong work ethic could easily make him an attractive player for a team in need of outfield depth should he be placed on waivers by the Sox.
Like Cody Ross, McDonald is a right handed pull hitter. Unfortunately, he is even less capable of hitting righties than Ross, with a career .213/.273/.339 line against them for a dreadful 60 wRC+. Against the roughly 25% of the league that throws left-handed, McDonald is a useful hitter, with a wRC+ of 114 and .285/.348/.451. With Ross on the club and a vast majority of pitchers throwing right handed, McDonald may not be around long after Crawford and Kalish return from the DL.
The biggest issue for McDonald against righties is strikeouts. Lefties punch out the journey man outfielder often enough, at 20.7%, but righties own him with a 25.2% rate, which is way too high for a player mostly destined for the corner outfield who lack exceptional power. Off-speed pitches are particularly hard to for McDonald to handle as he whiffed 21.7% on sliders and 16.9% on change ups from righties. RH Pitchers work away from McDonald, sapping him of his pull power and forcing him into a large number of ground balls and short opposite field fly balls. Boston has certainly come to understand his limitations and tried to use him against lefties as much as possible, but with better options on the team, the days of McDonald being a primary platoon player are likely numbered.
McDonald is a great athlete and his outfield abilities are very typical of the “tweener” stereotype. He lacks the range to play centerfield, though he rarely looks as bad there as the advanced metrics rate him. UZR has him costing teams 11.7 runs per 150 games in center and Total Zone is even more negative, giving him -13 runs in his mere 567 innings. Now that small sample size means both metric are in need of heavy regression, but it does seem fair to say that he is a below average defender in center.
The same small sample caveat should be giving when citing his high marks as both a right and left fielder. UZR gives him credit for saving 11.2 runs per 150 games based on his 384 innings in left and saving 1.1 runs based on 548 innings in right.
McDonald handles the corner spots well, probably a even a bit better than the average player, but given his limited usefulness at the plate, he is a fringe major leaguer overall. Aside from his ability to hit lefties, the biggest thing keeping him in the major leagues at this point is the way he plays. McDonald has won over fans and Boston’s management by playing hard and accepting whatever role the team has asked him to play. If he does end up on waivers, a team in need of a righty hitting outfielder should give him a long look. He is not much more than a replacement level player at this point, but in a limited role he can contribute. He has proved that playing in the toughest division in baseball. I would love to see him pass waivers and stay in the Boston organization, if he is, in fact, demoted but I don’t think he should.