Triston McKenzie’s Transformation

Cleveland has become something of a starting pitcher factory. It really started with the emergence of Corey Kluber and reclamation of Carlos Carrasco in 2014 and has continued through this year despite a bevy of injuries. Their best starters – Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale – have spent months on the IL and derailed Cleveland’s season, but there has been plenty of opportunity for the likes of Triston McKenzie, Cal Quantrill, and Eli Morgan, showing that Cleveland is likely to remain a pitching force for years to come. I want to focus on McKenzie today.

He is the most heralded prospect of all their breakouts since Kluber won that 2014 Cy Young as they are often turning mid-tier prospects or even non-prospects into stars. He has been a consistent Top 75 prospect across the industry and even showed some flashes of what was on the way last year with 33 innings of a 3.24 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. McKenzie broke camp with Cleveland this year but the troubles started immediately with four walks in a 3.7-inning relief appearance.

He joined the rotation for his next outing and proceeded to reel off 10 starts where he walked at least two batters in each and nearly a batter per inning with 35 in 38.7 innings. Add in the four walks from that season debut and he had a 21% BB rate fueling a 6.38 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in 42.3 innings. It was easily the league’s worst walk rate among the 133 pitchers with at least 40 innings. At least he had a 31% K rate while the 2nd-worst walk rate belonged to John Gant at 16% which matched his strikeout rate! Gant somehow had a 3.36 ERA at that time, but we aren’t here to marvel at his wild season.

The minors weren’t much better for McKenzie on the surface as he posted a 14% BB rate in 16 innings across four starts. But after walking four in each of the first two outings, he walked just one in each of the two outings before being recalled. He then walked just one in each of the first three starts upon returning before a 3-walk road bump against the White Sox on July 31st. A developing 23-year-old is allowed a bad start every once in a while, and he immediately rebounded by walking just two batters in his next four starts combined.

All told, he has a 4% BB rate in 49 innings since coming back from the minor leagues. McKenzie has completely turned his season around and now looks like he could be an impactful starter down the stretch for fantasy managers. What has he done to turn on a dime and find the command and control he was so sorely lacking at the beginning of the season?

McKenzie couldn’t command any of his arsenal in those first 11 appearances. He had double digit walk rates on all three of his pitches: 23% fastball, 21% slider, and 14% curveball. The excellent 31% K rate and .188 AVG against made it clear that McKenzie’s stuff had the ability to be great when he did command it.

The fastball was obviously his biggest issue. It yielded 29 walks while the breaking balls had 10 walks combined. He is commanding his heater so much better now. It is truly a night and day difference. His zone rate with it is 14 points higher at 57% while the first-pitch strike rate is up 15 points to 74%. These improvements have permeated his entire arsenal, but it all starts with the fastball and without real command of it, he wouldn’t be having this incredible success.

His overall first-pitch strike rate is up 14 points to 70% (tied for 2nd-highest since July 9th, behind only Adam Wainwright’s 71% mark). The influx of strikes has fostered a 10-point surge in chase rate, up to 36%, with all three pitches seeing a jump highlighted by the slider’s 16-point rise to 43%. Perhaps the single biggest difference is his drop in 3-ball counts. Through June, an insane 35% of his plate appearances reached a 3-ball count, easily the league’s highest rate and well above the 19% league average. In the subsequent 49 innings, he is down to just 14% of his plate appearances reaching a 3-ball count, good for 8th-best in the league.

When I decided to investigate McKenzie’s transformation, I thought there would be seismic arsenal, sequencing, and/or location shifts driving this success, but there isn’t really any of that. It seems to all come down to internal trust of his stuff and simply placing it in the zone more frequently. OK, I say “simply”, but if it was that simple, he probably would’ve just done it after the first 4-walk outing instead of suffering through six more before the demotion. Reading through a couple articles at The Athletic by Zack Meisel ($ Aug. 11th, $ Aug. 22nd), there was no talk of mechanical changes, either. He did have a pretty funny self-roast, though: “I tried to get all my walks out early.”

We are seeing the emergence of a bright young arm who could be the next big thing in Cleveland. The lingering issue is health and durability as his 6’5/165-pound frame (my perfect body comp, even better than Chris Sale and Carl Edwards Jr.) only managed topping 100 innings once in the minors and missed all of the 2019 season due to injuries. He is on pace to set a new career high for innings as he needs just 31 to best the 143 he had in 2017 as a 19-year-old.





Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
Member

Keys to longevity as a pitcher:

1. First, transform your fastball command, preferably in Cleveland.
2. Then, you can work on transforming your physique.

Sounds like this kid’s on the right path!