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Triston McKenzie did not throw away his shot

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He looks like the fifth starter for 2021, and that’s a great thing

Cleveland Indians v. Minnesota Twins Photo by Harrison Barden/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I wonder how diehard Mike Clevinger fans feel about Triston McKenzie?

Assuming there are Clevinger diehards, they’ve got to be a little peeved with this kid, right? I mean, their dude makes one goof (a huge goof, with potentially deadly implications, but still, just one goof) and here comes McKenzie and makes him expendable.

Alright, maybe it’s unfair to say McKenzie is the reason Clevinger is no longer with the team. Technically, McKenzie was not the first player called up after Zach Plesac and Clevinger went on their pandemic playdate in Chicago: It was Adam Plutko who took the mound in Clevinger’s first scheduled start during quarantine, Aug. 11. But Plutko has a long history in Cleveland at this point, and his appearances were the same as they ever were (2-2, 4.88 ERA, 4.88 K/9, 2.28 BB/9); that is, he never stood a chance of replacing anyone in the vaunted Cleveland rotation.

When he made his first appearance, on Aug. 22, McKenzie was pretty much a post-hype prospect. He came into the 2020 season as the No. 10 prospect in the Cleveland organization per FanGraphs, down from second in 2019 and ‘18 and third in ‘17. And before he toed the rubber in Cleveland, it had been almost two years to the day since his last competitive start, which came on Aug. 30 at Double-A Akron. All this made him the anti-Plutko in terms of expectations.

From his debut, however, McKenzie showed the stuff that made him so highly regarded as a prospect. He struck out 10 in his first start, a six-inning gem in which he only allowed one run on two hits and a single walk to the Tigers. The Cardinals got to him a bit more in his second outing, in which he went four innings, but he still only allowed two runs on three hits while notching three strikeouts and three walks. He continued to be a little up and down as he went through the short season, but he flustered batters at every step. In his worst outing, Sept. 13 at Minnesota, he allowed five runs to the homer-happy Twins but still managed to strikeout seven.

That ability to come out and impose his will on the game surely gave the front office the confidence to move on from Clevinger. As we know, this team hardly needs motivation to trade a player at peak trade value, but the emergence of McKenzie surely made the decision for Antonetti et al. a little easier. In the ten innings he threw prior to the trade deadline, McKenzie held opposing hitters to a .147/.237/.353 slash with a 3.91 xFIP. That small sample can’t have been the deciding factor, but it certainly put weight on the scale for shipping Sunshine to San Diego.

After the deadline, McKenzie continued to perform to the tune of .193/.247/.373 against and a 3.46 xFIP. He showed his value to the team after accepting a bullpen role in the final stretch of the season, pitching four innings in relief with a 0.19 FIP and 1.64 XFIP. He finished the year in the 90th percentile for strikeout rate, 87th percentile for exit velocity against, and 81st percentile for expected batting average against.

As the season progressed, McKenzie did show some signs of struggle. His average pitch velocity dropped from his debut to a month later, when he entered the bullpen, with his fastball falling from 94.5 to 90.6 mph from Aug. 22 to Sept. 18. The numbers rebounded upon his move to relief, but the fade surely came as no surprise given (a) his lanky (6’5”, 165 lbs) frame, (b) his injury history (forearm in 2018, back and chest in 2019), and (c) going two years between competitive starts.

With his solid debut and a spot open in the wake of Clevinger’s departure, McKenzie seems like a good bet to be in the rotation to begin the 2021 season. Of course, Logan Allen, Sam Hentges, Jean Carlos Mejía, Scott Moss, or Jefry Rodriguez might have something to say about who is the fifth starter, but a little competition never hurt anyone.

After pitching successfully and (most importantly?) remaining healthy, McKenzie now has the entire offseason in front of him to gain strength and increase his stamina. If he can come back next season and deliver like he did in 2020, the fifth starter seems to be an area of real strength for Cleveland, whether the job is McKenzie’s or a strong competition ensues.