Now, McDonald has time on his side

KEN ROSENTHAL

February 22, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Forget he's Ben McDonald, former No. 1 pick of the draft, the highest-rated pitching prospect of all time. Think of him as Ben McDonald, a pitcher whose ability can never match his publicity, a young man learning his craft.

In that context, McDonald put together a breakthrough season in 1992, not that anyone gives him credit for it. He continues to be judged unfairly, against expectations he did not create and cannot possibly meet.

What did McDonald accomplish last season? First and foremost, he stayed healthy, making 35 starts and working 227 innings. Those numbers alone reflect significant improvement, but McDonald's other statistics are equally revealing.

Home runs, everyone fretted over the home runs. McDonald allowed 32, second most in the majors behind Detroit's Bill Gullickson (35). But 23 of those came before the All-Star break -- before McDonald incorporated the pitch that ultimately could make him a big winner.

McDonald was 8-6 with a 5.00 ERA before the break, 5-7 with a 3.39 ERA after. In other words, he pitched better, but with worse results. Few recognized the impact of his cut fastball. With diminishing run support, he won only one of his last 10 starts.

The cut fastball is a variation of the slider, thrown with a flick of the wrist instead of a complete turn. McDonald's version travels 4-5 mph slower than his fastball. Pitching coach Dick Bosman taught it to him, with the idea of developing a reliable alternative to his curveball.

McDonald uses his curve and high fastball to bury hitters when he's ahead in the count. But he needed another option when he got behind 2-0 and 3-1. This way, hitters can't just sit on his fastball. They might see a pitch with breaking action.

Thus, McDonald will start the season with a repertoire of four pitches, including his changeup. He probably won't ever use his forkball, a pitch that is difficult to control and difficult on the arm. Bosman said he wants it shelved "as long as I'm here -- we've got more than enough ammo."

That's one difference.

Experience is the other.

"Big Ben made a huge step last year getting his feet planted firmly on the ground, the confidence to feel he can throw 230 innings," Rick Sutcliffe said. "He was working on several different things, and that created some inconsistency. Look for some big things from him this year."

Bosman scoffs at those who predict a quantum leap, saying, "Ben's not going to burst on the scene like [Mike] Mussina did. Ben's going to make progress every year." But evidence suggests that McDonald might be reaching a point in his career where he finally will achieve major success.

Jim Abbott, McDonald's 1988 Olympic teammate, was 22-26 with a 4.24 ERA after two seasons. Because of injuries, McDonald took three seasons to throw a similar number of innings (actually, 72 more). So, he's slightly ahead of Abbott at the same stage -- 28-26 with a 3.95 ERA.

Abbott, of course, emerged as one of the league's best pitchers in his third season, with 379 innings behind him. "It takes innings," McDonald said. "The only thing you learn from is innings. Boz can tell me what's going to happen. Sut can tell me. But you never learn until you experience things yourself.

"That's what happened to him [Abbott]. He's ahead of me, because I got hurt. But after so many innings, it's like a light clicks on. Pitchers start to see things a lot different. In the second half of last year, that's what happened to me."

He still needs to develop into a clutch pitcher -- opponents batted .285 with runners in scoring position last season, .329 from the seventh inning on. But without question, he's making progress. With his arm. With his head. With his heart.

"He could have a bad inning last year and not come off mentally defeated," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "The best thing I saw is that he had some rough innings, but was able to come back and give you that good, positive response to questions when before there was doubt.

"When you look a guy in the eye, you get a feeling if he wants out of a game. The previous year, I saw it in his body language, he was ready to come out. Last year, very seldom did I get that from him. The last game in Cleveland, he went a long way on a cold day, but didn't want to come out."

That was one good sign. Yesterday, McDonald joined Sutcliffe, Arthur Rhodes and Alan Mills for an 8 a.m. jog, and that was another. Forget he's Ben McDonald, one of the most over-hyped prospects in major-league history. Think of him as Ben McDonald, a pitcher on the rise, and still only 25 years old.

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