Friday, September 4, 2015

Getting to Know Astros/JetHawks 1B Chase McDonald

I've been watching Lancaster 1B Chase McDonald since he was first drafted in the 12th round in 2013 out of East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, partly because at 6'4" 265#, he's hard to miss. But mostly because once I saw him for the first time playing for the Appy League Astros in 2013, I knew that he had the chance to develop into quite the power hitter.

And that is precisely what has happened. In his first season, 7.3% of his plate appearances resulted in an extra base hit. In 2014, that increased to 9.9%. And this year, through Thursday's game, McDonald's XBH% is 13.3%. He has collected 27 doubles, one triple and 28 home runs in 100 games. He is in second place in the organization for home runs, trailing Astros minor league leader A.J. Reed by six, but Reed has played in 31 more games than McDonald too.

And don't attribute all of McDonald's home runs to the "Lancaster effect," a reference to the tendency of the wind in his home ballpark to turn long doubles into home runs. I talked to Lancaster Hitting Coach Darryl Robinson earlier this week about that topic and asked him whether McDonald has legit power. According to Robinson, "Oh my goodness, yes, he does! (People) are going to talk about the ballpark, but I think he may have had one wind-aided home run all season. The ones that he has hit have been home runs, legit! He's got big power."

That is not to say that McDonald doesn't still have some challenges ahead of him as a hitter, but Robinson has seen McDonald's hard work and he thinks Chase can put it all together and find the consistency that he will need in order to get to the next level.

Chase McDonald - May 2015
Photo by Jayne Hansen

When I spoke with McDonald last week, I asked him about the Lancaster effect. He told me that a couple hits probably should have been doubles instead of home runs, but added, "But a lot of them, I had pretty good swings on the ball and knew they were going out." The longest ones he remembers hitting this season were one over the light pole to the left of the scoreboard and one over the scoreboard at Lancaster. But he hasn't hit one on the freeway on-ramp ... yet. In any event, McDonald told me, "I don't really keep a tab on them. I'm just happy that I can hit it out and get around the bases."

But when I brought up the home run he hit recently in Lake Elsinore, he remembered that. "That place is ridiculous. I was so surprised when I hit it out," McDonald said. He went on to describe balls that teammate Marc Wik had crushed in batting practice; they reached the wall and then just dropped dead. People tend to think that all of the California League ballparks are hitter-friendly, but that is simply not the case and Lake Elsinore is Exhibit A. Through Thursday's game, 58 home runs have been hit in Lake Elsinore's ballpark as compared to 165 at Lancaster's The Hangar.

Aside from the playing conditions, how has he liked playing in Lancaster this season? McDonald said, "Playing in Lancaster's OK. The boosters are going to be your biggest support out here. They're the most (passionate) fans and they're great people. Coming out here on a Tuesday, there were probably 1500 people out in the stands which is great. The fan base, they love coming out and watching the game. You always hear them heckling the other team up in the stands."

McDonald continued, "Playing out in the desert is a little tough, especially for me. I'm from eastern North Carolina where I'm used to seeing nothing but trees and grass and it's humid. Out here, it's dry. There's not a whole lot of grass. It's quite a culture shock."

When asked what he feels that he's accomplished this season, McDonald said, "I've gotten extra base hits up, and I don't really attribute that to the Lancaster effect. I mainly base that off the different approach I've taken this year. I'm trying to drive the ball in the gaps. If it goes out, it goes out. If it's a double, it's a double." And because of the work he's been doing, McDonald said, "I'm hitting a lot of my home runs now toward center, left center, right center, in that area, not down the lines."

McDonald does have a fairly high strikeout rate, but one adjustment he's working on is to make contact earlier in the count. "I foul a lot of pitches off and I put myself in a position where I've either got to put the ball in play or go for the extra base hit and I strike out. But honestly, I don't let the strikeouts get me down because it's going to happen, especially for a guy that they're looking to hit extra base hits and home runs." As Chase put it, it would be different if he was a "guy that they wanted to slap the ball around and get on all the time."

In describing himself defensively, he said, "I hear people say that I need to work on that, but I feel I'm pretty good at it. I dive for balls and I try to keep balls in front. Every now and then, if I dive, I'll miss one, but I like to say I'm pretty solid. I trust myself playing first base. I've got a pretty good arm. I'm not ever concerned about throwing the ball around the infield. If I turn a double play, I know I'm going to get it there and I'm going to make a good throw on it. I'm pretty solid over there."

As a power hitter, McDonald is often called upon to DH as well. On playing first vs. DH-ing, he told me, "It's completely different. Playing first base, you're in the game the whole time. You're mentally focused. You're out there playing defense and then you come in and it's your time to bat. You're already at that point where you've been focusing on the game. (When you) DH, you're in the dugout just hanging out, waiting for your turn to hit, just hanging out, talking to other guys in the dugout and you've kind of got to get it going again, the mental side. You make the preparation before you go up there and hit. Sometimes it's good to DH. It's kind of a mental break. I enjoy doing either, but I really do like playing first base."

What pitcher in the Astros system would McDonald least like to face? "Honestly, it would be (Jandel) Gustave if anyone in the whole organization because of just how hard he throws and that slider that he throws now. I've faced a few guys this year that have been throwing 95, 98, maybe touching 100, but to sit 100 and possibly hit 102, 103? That's just unheard of," said McDonald.

If he couldn't play baseball, McDonald assumes that he would probably have gone on to play football in college, a sport he also (unsurprisingly) played in high school, or he would have gone into construction management. "I went to school in the beginning as an engineer, but that wasn't going to work out with baseball, with the timing and everything, so I went into construction management and I fell in love doing that. I had a good time in those classes so I would probably be a project manager somewhere right now. And I hunt and fish all the time. Either way I'd be enjoying life," said McDonald.

McDonald definitely looks the part of a football player, so I was curious why he ended up playing baseball instead of football. "I don't know. I guess I just enjoyed being around the guys I was with in high school more than I did playing football. And I was pretty decent at it, and I had some schools call me and offer me some scholarships. I ended up going to East Carolina and I pursued my dream there and I had a lot of fun there as well. It was a great school. I had a great time. I met a lot of life-long friends, and it just happened that I had a good enough season there (that) Houston decided to draft me."

As always, I asked him to tell me something about himself that most people didn't know and might be surprised to hear. And I was surprised with his answer because McDonald isn't exactly built like Michael Phelps. "I was a swimmer in high school for two years. My mom and her sister both swam in college. That whole side of the family, everybody just loves water sports. I grew up on the water. Being around my Dad, we were always out on a boat. If I was with my mom's side of the family, we were always out skiing or doing something out on a boat whenever we were visiting. I guess you could say I'm like a water child."

Something else people may not know is that McDonald got engaged during the last offseason. "Her name is Morgan Squatriglia. People can't ever pronounce it." And, yes, she is taking his last name.

Until last week, I had never sat down and talked with Chase one on one and I really wasn't sure what to expect. But I came away impressed by his quiet confidence, intelligence and good nature. And I like that he understands and appreciates what playing baseball is all about. "I try my best everyday. I play hard. But I'm pretty easy-going during the game. I just feel like I'm playing a game out there. I'm having fun. I'm always enjoying it whenever I'm out there."

Thank you for your time, Chase, and best of luck in the playoffs!

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