There is a point in a prospect’s career where the hype fades and they can get caught in a purgatory of not playing against the elite competition to improve but also not doing enough to justify giving you a spot to play more elite competition.
It must be very difficult being an MLB prospect on the verge of getting a roster spot. Very few prospects have the talent to force a franchise to bring them up and give them a spot. So many factors come into play when deciding whether to bring up a prospect, and the most important one is the timing. Is there an opening on the depth chart? Where there free-agent signings? Did the team just draft someone with a similar skill set? Have you been healthy enough? Have you been brought up and sent down so much that your confidence is shot? Are you in an organization that pushes and challenges prospects? Or are you in an organization that sits on talent until it absolutely has to promote it?
Any one of these is reason enough to slow a prospect’s development or career. If a prospect experiences more than one of the questions above, he might not ever get a real chance despite having all-star talent. That’s how you get late-bloomers like Max Muncy, Jacob deGrom, Mitch Hanniger, Josh Donaldson, and so on. This is a weekly series examining players for whom 2021 could likely be the defining season in their career — for better or worse:
|2021 or Bust|
|Brendan Rodgers||Victor Robles||Brendan McKay||Andrew Benintendi|
|Kyle Wright||Luis Urias||David Dahl||Brent Honeywell|
|Royce Lewis||Zack & Nick Burdi||Austin Meadows||Franklin Barreto|
|Nick Senzel||Readers’ Choice|
The 2017 offseason was the beginning of a two-way revolution that has yet to be realized. On the more accomplished side, Shohei Ohtani was coming over from Japan fresh after winning the MVP in the NPB where he posted both a 1.000 OPS and a 1.86 ERA. On the less accomplished side, Hunter Greene would have arguably been a first-round pick as either a pitcher or a shortstop, due to his tremendous size, athleticism, and arm strength. In the middle of that spectrum was Brendan McKay, who blossomed at the University of Louisville, where he had one of the most accomplished collegiate careers ever. The 2017 Golden Spikes Award winner, propelling the Cardinals to the top of the ACC every season he was there:
Playing in a major conference, if McKay were just a pitcher or a hitter, his performance at either would likely be enough to make him a first-rounder, but together? It made him a potential choice for the top pick in the draft, rivaling Greene, Royce Lewis, and Makenzie Gore.
Leading into draft day, there was a legitimate discussion about whether McKay should be a hitter or a pitcher, although in hindsight, the choice was clear. Despite success at both, scouts were generally in agreement that there was a lot longer of a path to the majors as a hitter than a pitcher as McKay’s skill on the mound surpassed his skill at the plate. From an investment point of view, asking a player to not use skills that earned him a top 5 pick seems reckless. Especially since organizations spend years looking for left-handed prospects who could actually become starters. To not explore that would almost be a dereliction of duty. Also, in the best-case scenario where he’s a hitter, he’d be a first baseman, which means his hitting better be very good, otherwise all that extra development time was a waste because he could be spending it pitching in the majors.
Right away McKay shined on the mound. He was striking out 10+ batters per nine innings, he was allowing less than one base runner per inning, and posting a minor league ERA below 2.00.
He flew right through the minors, not starting more than nine games at any level before being promoted. Talent evaluators really wanted to see this two-way project work. There were even columns written suggesting McKay should be fast-tracked as a pitcher to the majors where he could then work on his hitting slowly. From far away, this seems feasible, until we remember that learning to hit big-league pitching is really hard and usually involves learning to hit pitchers who aren’t in the big leagues first. After barely two years after being drafted, he made his major league debut in June of 2019. Against the hapless Rangers, McKay spun six innings of scoreless ball, striking out three. He was effective and efficient. His next start was against a potent Yankees lineup (minus Giancarlo Stanton) where he held is own, allowing three runs in five innings. His third start was against the historically bad Orioles, where he threw five scoreless, striking out seven. The McKay hype was at an all-time high. Then the wheels came off.
What Went Wrong
McKay made five more starts in 2019, allowing a combined 19 runs.
Despite being healthy in 2020, the Rays did not bring him over from the alternate site, which is not a good sign, considering they only had three pitchers capable of going more than three innings in a start in their rotation. The other two were essentially openers. He was injured in August, when he could have been used as a replacement for Charlie Morton, who was injured at the exact same time, so we’ll never know if he was the next up on the Rays’ depth chart.
So what has gone wrong?
While it didn’t show in the minors, the criticism about McKay is that he does not have one great pitch. He has a plus fastball with average velocity. His curveball is also a plus pitch with some depth, and the changeup and cutter need work. What is he really good at? Control. For his age and experience, McKay does have a good feel for all four pitches.
We also know that McKay has poor spin on all of his pitches, ranking in lowest percentiles in the majors. This is a profile for a pitcher who has trouble getting strikeouts because batters can foul pitches off despite McKay being able to put them where he wants. It also suggests that when batters get the pitches they want, they can hammer them. And that is what we saw in 2019. Hitters had a 78% contact rate, meaning that when they swung, they made contact four out of every five times. Getting strikeouts is very difficult if that is the case. McKay also had hard contact trouble, with hitters making hard contact 44% of the time — one of the worst rates in the majors and producing an average opponent exit velocity of 91.2.
Despite showing advanced control, McKay is hittable. Long story short: McKay needs better pitches. This is tricky. One way to get better pitches is to tinker with delivery to get higher spin rates, more deception or more velocity, but that could affect his already plus control. You could be sacrificing one positive for another. Also, there really is no reason to think he won’t be a starter with minor adjustments. If you sacrifice his control for movement, you could change his outlook from starter to reliever.
McKay could change sequencing. One of the only starters with a worse spin rate on his fastball is Kyle Hendricks. He also has worse velocity. The difference is Hendricks has elite control and elite sequencing. He is able to keep hitters off-balance all of the time. Is that something you can learn? Or is it an instinct? This is likely to get better over time if McKay continues to get more experience. Whether it will improve enough to be effective is the question.
While he’s still very young at just 25, McKay’s career is at kind of a crossroads. He hit enough over his minor league career to be interesting, slugging roughly .500 between Triple-A and the majors in 2019, but given his problems on the mound, should he be working solely on refining his pitching? I think so.
Another reason why 2021 is a pivotal year for McKay is that he is on the Rays, an organization loaded with talent, not inclined to rush anybody, and always trying to win on a low budget. If he cannot prove to help them win, they won’t keep giving him chances, and they have others who probably can help them waiting in the wings. Even though he is just 25, McKay could get lost in the Rays backlog of Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz, and Brent Honeywell.
I’m more optimistic about McKay than many of the other players in this series. There is already some polish to him by way of control. He also has good enough velocity to be effective. Now, whether he puts it together in 2021 or not, I’m not bullish enough to say he will, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if he became the polar opposite of Tyler Glasnow, meaning multiple pitches, command, and consistency. The bottom line is he is worth holding onto for at least 2021 to see what he might become.