South Dakota State's Ryan McDonald emerging as one of college baseball's top sluggers
The senior catcher has homered in five consecutive games and leads nation in slugging percentage.
BROOKINGS — South Dakota State catcher Ryan McDonald returned to the Jackrabbit baseball team this spring for his COVID year, and knowing this would be his final college season, the mechanical engineering major made arrangements to line up a job for when the year ends.
What he didn't realize then was he was about to put together one of the best individual seasons in SDSU baseball history, one in which he'd emerge among the most versatile hitters in the country.
Now that job might have to wait, as MLB scouts have been sniffing around Erv Huether Field to find out what's going on with the Jacks' right-handed power bat.
"I haven't had that conversation yet," McDonald chuckles sheepishly. "I suppose it'll be coming soon."
It'll have to. If he keeps hitting like he has been, every team in the big leagues is going to have an interest in McDonald.
After three solid seasons as a high on-base, low-average hitter for SDSU, McDonald broke out in 2022, emerging as a first team all-Summit League stick who could hit for average and power. But this year he's taken it to an entirely new level.
McDonald has gone yard in each of SDSU's last five games. In 30 outings this season, he's whacked 16 home runs. For perspective, that's an 86-homer pace over the 162 games of a major-league season. He's ninth in the nation in homers and his home run rate of more than one every other game is second only to Florida's Jac Caglianone, who has 22 dingers in 38 games for the Gators.
"It's been fun," McDonald says. "I've been seeing the ball well all year and it's definitely fun to hit the long ball and produce."
McDonald's .953 slugging percentage leads Division I, but he's far from a one-dimensional slugger. His batting average? .410. With 33 walks and eight times hit by pitch in 30 games, his on-base percentage is an absurd .574 (third in the nation), which — combined with his slugging percentage — gives him a preposterous 1.527 OPS. He even leads the team with eight stolen bases.
"He's having a pretty incredible year," said Jacks coach Rob Bishop, who has the Prior Lake, Minnesota native batting in the leadoff spot for his team. "We've seen flashes of it but nothing like this. He's just gotten more consistent and better at taking his walks and being disciplined. When people try to pitch around him, he doesn't give in and give them free outs, and when they make a bad pitch he doesn't miss it."
McDonald has done this all while expertly handling a young pitching staff from behind the plate, where his steady work as a receiver, combined with his white-hot hitting has helped the Jackrabbits awaken from a rugged start to win seven games in a row to jump back into the Summit League race.
"There's no question he's been the spark," Bishop said. "Any team that has their leadoff guy on base that much — it makes your offense go. It starts the game with a high-pressure at-bat for the pitcher, gets our guys going and creates some momentum right from the jump. Then you throw in what a calming presence he's been for our young pitchers behind the plate and he's having a really tremendous impact on our team."
McDonald spent his freshman season of 2019 as a part-time starter behind the plate, and while he batted a pedestrian .237, he homered three times and his patient approach produced a robust .376 on-base percentage. He hit .213 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, but with 17 walks in just over 60 plate appearances his OBP was a sparkling .439.
He became a full-time starter in 2021 and again used his knack for quality at-bats to post a .381 OBP despite hitting just .218.
It all came together last season, though, when McDonald batted .329 with 10 homers, 12 doubles, 34 RBI, a .446 OBP and .630 slugging percentage.
Little did anyone know, including McDonald, he hadn't come close to peaking. There were no major adjustments to his swing, no new training sessions or video analysis breakthroughs. He just showed up ready to build on the progress he made in 2022.
"Just becoming a more mature hitter has helped," says the 5-foot-10, 210-pounder. "I haven't done anything mechanically different with my swing, but my approach has been better — deciding which pitches to swing at and which pitches to take and really looking for my pitch to hit. I've been in the weight room since high school, and that's the biggest reason for my power."
As McDonald has continued to punish any pitch that catches too much of the plate, he's found himself surging up the SDSU record books. His 34 career home runs rank fifth in school history, and he's closing in on the single-season record of 19. Jesse Sawyer, a 2011 alum, holds both records with 50 career homers and two seasons of 19.
There's plenty of time for McDonald to be the first Jackrabbit to get to 20 in a season, and he's also continued to make progress with the glove. Bishop says McDonald has average arm strength but elite accuracy, and his skills blocking balls in the dirt and framing close pitches have continued to improve. He can also play some outfield and first base.
All of that makes him all the more attractive to pro scouts. The MLB Draft has been shortened to 20 rounds, but McDonald is still a candidate to be taken, and he'll land with some team as a free agent if he isn't. But while McDonald's bat has been the primary highlight for SDSU through the early part of the season, they're winning now, so that job-or-baseball decision McDonald has waiting for him isn't even on his mind right now. There's still time for the third-place Jacks (14-17, 7-5 Summit League) to make a move in the standings and potentially challenge undefeated Summit League power Oral Roberts, with McDonald leading the way.
"The last couple weeks our starting pitchers have gone deep into games and given the offense a chance to score runs and get us a lead and our bullpen has been doing the job at the back end," McDonald said. "It's good to see. We've put ourselves in a good spot to make a run, make the conference tournament and have a chance to play some postseason ball."