The Cleveland Indians haven’t had a pitching prospect quite like Triston McKenzie in at least a decade.
Picked in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft out of Royal Palm Beach High School, McKenzie has had a rocket strapped to his back in the Tribe minor league system. The wiry 6’5” right-hander weighs just 165 pounds, and his stuff projects to get even nastier as he continues to fill out his lanky frame.
Despite being just 19 years old, he began the 2017 season in High-A Lynchburg, squaring off against players on average four years older than him.
How has he responded? McKenzie currently leads the Carolina League in strikeouts by 16, with 99 thus far in just 77.1 innings pitched. He’s also top five in WHIP and up until last week, was top five in ERA.
McKenzie spoke with Let’s Go Tribe about Dwight Gooden comparisons, responding to adversity, and his underrated ping pong skills in this exclusive interview.
Brian Hemminger (Let’s Go Tribe): I noticed that you’ve written the letters SSA on your ballcap since at least your final high school season. Is there any significance to that?
Triston McKenzie: Yeah, one of my cousins passed away my senior year and it’s just a way for me to remember her. I started doing it in high school and it’s not necessarily a habit now, but it’s something for me to stay grounded and remember why I play the game and that I’m blessed to play the game I play.
Brian Hemminger: Your younger brother TJ committed to Vanderbilt last year, and it seems like you’re really proud of him.
Triston McKenzie: Definitely. I’m really close to my brother. It’s always been friendly competitions between me and him, but there’s also some jest. I’ll put him down so he stays humble and he does the same to me. It’s a little back and forth between brothers.
Brian Hemminger: Academics is something that’s really important in your family. I heard that was the main reason you originally committed to Vanderbilt and you wanted to be a cardiologist. Were your parents big on academics growing up?
Triston McKenzie: It was something that my parents instilled in me. You have to carry yourself a certain way and people judge you or view you based on all aspects of your life, school included. I never wanted to feel like an outcast. I never wanted to be someone that people looked down upon so that always pushed me to be strong academically and it became a competition between me and my brother just to see who can do better.
Brian Hemminger: I’ve heard through the grapevine that you’re an excellent ping pong player.
Triston McKenzie: (laughs) I dabble a little bit, yeah.
Brian Hemminger: Is there anyone that gives you a run for your money?
Triston McKenzie: Trust me, I’m far from the best. I put up some good competition. Ka’ai Tom is a very competitive player. Coach Mansolino, the manager is a really good player. Our clubbie John is a really good player. Some other guys like Sam Haggerty. There’s some good guys in our organization.
Brian Hemminger: Juan Hillman really hyped up your Call of Duty skills. Is that something you’ve been keeping up on?
Triston McKenzie: As of late, I’ve been slacking a little bit but I’m expecting to get really heavy into it once the new one comes out. I’d say I’m top five in the organization. Mike Clevinger is really high up on that list as well as Justin Garcia. Those guys are really good.
Brian Hemminger: It seems all I hear about is how good you are at things. Is there anything you’ve tried that you just sucked at?
Triston McKenzie: (laughs) I try to stay away from things like that. (laughs) I think I can stand a fighting chance at all the things I try or play. I wouldn’t say I downright sucked at anything.
Brian Hemminger: Okay, last non-baseball question. Is there a show you’ve been binging on Netflix lately?
Triston McKenzie: There’s a couple shows but I think I’m running out of shows to watch (laughs). I watch Narcos, Orange is the New Black, Prison Break, and I think I’m gonna start watching Breaking Bad because everyone has been hyping it up and I haven’t seen it.
Brian Hemminger: I’ve heard a lot of comparisons between yourself and Dwight Gooden. What do you make of that?
Triston McKenzie: I’ve been compared to him for a long time. People just see my slender frame and they compare it so someone like him. I’ve always taken interest in who he was as a pitcher, who he was as a player. He put up some amazing numbers when he debuted.
Brian Hemminger: Even the nickname has carried over. I’ve heard some teammates call you “Doc,” and Todd Isaacs calls you “Sticks.” What do you think about those?
Triston McKenzie: Well the Doc came from a different side because I wanted to get into medicine, but it fits pretty well. I’m comfortable with either. It doesn’t bother me. It’s a friendly joke, a joke between friends. That’s my nickname with him. He calls me “Doctor Sticks.”
Brian Hemminger: Is there a story behind some of these locker room debates you’ve been having with Shane Bieber?
Triston McKenzie: (laughs) It’s been going on since spring training. We had a super power debate, and every time we have a debate, the easiest way to settle it is to go on Twitter and have the people decide because we have a bit of bias towards our own sides. The public has been 100 percent fair because they’ve always sided on my side so far (laughs).
Brian Hemminger: The Indians were very aggressive with you heading into this season with the promotion to High-A Lynchburg. One of the main things I heard was they wanted you to face some adversity. You’ve been flourishing thus far, but there have been two starts this season where things didn’t go your way for the first time. In both cases, you responded to the adversity by mopping the floor with opposing hitters in your next start. How do you feel you’ve responded to adversity?
Triston McKenzie: I feel the adversity and the challenge of High-A. One, It prepares me for the next level and two, it lights a fire under me. No one likes to fail and the fact that it happened to me, it put a driving force in me for that to not happen again.
Brian Hemminger: Another advantage of playing at High-A is you’re facing many of the same teams over and over again because there aren’t as many teams. You’re constantly having to make adjustments to keep these guys off balance. Can you talk about that?
Triston McKenzie: The Carolina League is definitely a smaller league so every time you go out there, you’re making adjustments to hitters, hitters are making adjustments to you so that provides another factor to it that makes the league more difficult than some other leagues.
Brian Hemminger: From reading scouting reports, I’ve heard your velocity tails off as you get deeper into your starts, but your strikeouts actually increase. Is that kind of a thing where you’re learning to pitch instead of relying on having amazing stuff?
Triston McKenzie: That comes from trusting my catcher and stuff like that. Just understanding that as the game goes on, I have to adjust to what my body is doing, what the hitters are doing. They’ve seen me a couple times through the order so I have to make a bunch of little adjustments based on all of that, and it really comes from just trusting my catcher. They’re seeing the same things I am, maybe more.
Brian Hemminger: Is there a part of your game that you still feel needs the most work?
Triston McKenzie: I’d say trusting my catcher and just adjusting to the game and getting stronger.
Brian Hemminger: You like to call your frame “wiry” and I’ve heard that you’re deceptively strong. Is that something you almost get sick of defending at times?
Triston McKenzie: I don’t necessarily defend it. I just let my actions speak for what they are. Guys talk, but until they see what I can do, it means nothing to me. I let my actions speak for who I am as a person and my abilities.
Brian Hemminger: Another thing people seem to praise you for is projectability. Do you feel like you have a lot of untapped potential within you?
Triston McKenzie: Definitely, there’s clearly still room to grow, but that applies to everybody in the minor leagues. It’s not like it’s an exclusive thing for me.
Brian Hemminger: Something that’s difficult for pitchers is being able to stay focused on just their next start instead of other distractions. What keeps you in the moment?
Triston McKenzie: Number one for me is playing as a team. I’m not there competing just for myself. I’m out there competing to try to get my team a win, to get us to the playoffs like we did in the first half of this season, or to get us to win a championship. Everything I do in baseball is not just for me, but it’s for the guys around me and that’s one of the major things that keeps me grounded.
Brian Hemminger: Do you have any specific goals that you came into the season with, or anything you wanted to accomplish for the rest of the year?
Triston McKenzie: My goal coming into the season and my goal coming out of this season is to learn something every day. That’s the best way for me to get better. My goal is to strive to get better with each and every outing and I have great resources surrounding me to keep learning.
Triston wanted to give a shoutout to his brother and his parents for their continued support. Also, special thanks to his high school Coach Kaplan. You can follow him on Twitter @T_easy24.