When the Indians chose Triston McKenzie with their competitive balance pick in 2015 as a high school pitcher from Florida, they were looking down the road at arm that had the projection to turn into a top of the rotation pitcher. After he gained 10 mph on his fastball his senior season, there were high hopes for high upside on the 6-foot-5, 160lb lanky right hander.
His performance in his first two and a half season’s as a pro has done nothing to quell the high hopes for him. He’s our number one prospect not only because his performance, but because of his age, performance and the fact that there is still a lot of projection left to his ability.
At age 19, McKenzie struck out 186 batters in 143 innings at High-A Lynchburg in the Carolina League. That led the entire league and made him second in all of minor league baseball in strikeouts.
McKenzie was just over four years younger than the average age of players in the Carolina League and age and performance against the level is usually a positive indicator.
His 32.8 K% led all High-A starters (Carolina League, California League and Florida State League), had the best K-BB% (24.8%), had the fourth best swinging strike rate (14%) and had the second lowest FIP (3.03).
No teenage starting pitcher had more than 129 strikeouts last season in all of the minor leagues, so McKenzie was in very rare air. The air is so rare that only few players have matched or exceeded his performance over the last 11 seasons. Only a few teenagers at High-A came near his strikeout totals.
|Justus Sheffield||19 (2015)||139|
|Alex Reyes||19 (2014)||137|
|Tyler Glasnow||19 (2013)||164|
|Jose Fernandez||19 (2012)||158|
|Julio Teheran & John Lamb||19, 19 (2010)||159|
|Jordan Lyles||19 (2009)||167|
|Madison Bumgarner||18 (2008)||164|
|Clayton Kershaw||19 (2007)||163|
|Jake McGee||19 (2006)||171|
The names are a bit of a mixed bag. Sheffield was obviously one of the Indians most highly touted prospects and the second big chip in the Andrew Miller trade. Alex Reyes is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball that missed all of 2017 with Tommy John surgery or he might have had rookie of the year aspirations. Tyler Glasnow has been a top prospect for a few years and could still breakout. Obviously the late Jose Fernandez flew through the minors with absolutely electric stuff that is unmatched. Teheran struggled as the ace of a bad Braves team but the upside for him remains and the Reds’ Lamb still has a lot of believers in his future. Lyles never quite broke out and the next two names, Bumgarner and Kershaw should be familiar. McGee has been one of baseball’s better left handed relievers the last few years.
As I said, the names are a mixed bag but there are some big, successful ones and this list shows that not many teenagers have put up the numbers McKenzie has in his career to date.
Many want McKenzie to add more weight to his tall frame because there aren’t many examples of pitchers with his build with success at the major league level. Chris Sale is tall and slender but gained some weight but also throws with a funky arm angle that many said would never work but he’s proven many wrong. Pedro Martinez had a slight build as well. That’s not to say McKenzie is anything like either or should be compared to a Hall of Famer and one of the game’s top 10 pitchers the last handful of years, but McKenzie hasn’t done anything to slow down expectations.
The worry about his frame is that he won’t be able to log innings necessary to be a starting pitcher long term and stay healthy. He jumped from 83 innings at age 18 in 2016 to 143 innings in 2017 pitching most of the season at age 19. While 143 innings is still below what the Indians would like to see him carry as a big leaguers, there’s no reason to rush and pile them up on him now.
McKenzie’s fastball still runs 89-95 at times, mostly sitting around 91-93 the last two years according to reports and the outings I’ve seen him. He’s able to maintain velocity throughout most starts but the Indians are obviously hopeful the rest of his projection will bump his fastball to sit 93-95 more often. Even if McKenzie sits 92-93 more often than not, he has incredible pitchability for his age, or any pitching prospect period.
In addition to his fastball that he can command throughout the strike zone that has some tail to it, he has a sharp 11-5 curveball that gets plenty of tilt and swings and misses. Even without elite fastball velocity, McKenzie has had no problem fanning batters thanks to his ability to throw strikes, which most hitters in the two full season leagues he’s pitched in are usually just seeing for the first time and he throws his curve for a strike often, something most aren’t either used to seeing or equipped to handle in those leagues at those ages. The important thing to remember is that he is four years younger than many of the hitters he fanned all year.
McKenzie also has a changeup that he’s learning to get separation from his fastball on and he’s already able to get good deception with it coming out of his hand.
There will always be the worry that McKenzie’s frame won’t further develop and he won’t be handle 180-200 innings, but he’s passed all the tests thrown at him in his young career and in 2018 in Double-A, there’s a good chance he’ll hopefully see a 20 or so inning increase where is numbers hold up through the increase. Double-A is where real big league prospects separate themselves from the pack and McKenzie has distanced himself at every level so far.
The Eastern League is sometimes known as more of a pitcher’s league and Canal Park’s cavernous dimensions should help him further, but even when he struggles, McKenzie isn’t one to worry about. Many high school first round picks don’t fail much at baseball before they hit the minor leagues. Most of them experience slumps and failure for the first time playing the game and have to learn to adapt and adjust to overcome this. It can be a struggle if they’ve never had to go through it. Now, it’s true that you can hardly call any of McKenzie’s minor league numbers as any type of failure thus far. But whenever he does, McKenzie’s maturity and poise should make it relatively easy for him to handle. He speaks like someone 10 years his elder and is very self aware of himself and his ability.
Even if the velocity gain doesn’t come and he doesn’t add weight to his frame, if he proves he can handle the inning increase, he should have enough pure stuff, command and poise to get hitters out. 2018 figures to be a big year for McKenzie and he should be able to show why he’s the Indians top prospect here and why he will shoot up other lists quickly