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What Triston McKenzie’s debut means and how he fits with the Indians

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It’s an usual circumstance for a number of reasons, but we have every reason to believe that Triston McKenzie is ready

MLB: FEB 19 Cleveland Indians Photo Day Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You would be hard pressed to find a prospect debuting with more universal positive energy than Triston McKenzie. He’s garnered praise and enthusiasm from current and former Indians prospects, MLB players from other teams, personal trainers who happen to be married to Indians relievers, and just about everyone who has ever come in contact with the 23-year-old Brooklyn native when it was announced he would make his long-awaited debut on Saturday.

When McKenzie makes his major league debut against the Tigers later tonight, it will be the culmination of a lifetime of hard work, and more recently, overcoming some severe obstacles.

The right-hander was once the unequivocal top pitching prospect in the Indians rotation until injuries shortened his 2018 season and a back strain forced him to miss all of 2019. This season was supposed to be his comeback tour, a chance to showcase all his hard work over the last year. The ongoing global pandemic put a stop to that, but a twist of fate (and some careless teammates) have opened the door for McKenzie to showcase the control and hammer curveball that once had him soaring up top prospect lists.

Fans have not seen McKenzie pitch in almost two years, but of course the Indians have had close eyes on the lanky starter. The club’s president of baseball operations, Chris Antonetti, was optimistic about his progress when talking with the media earlier this week.

“Triston has done a really good job,” Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said on a recent Zoom call. “I know it’s not as obvious to everyone else because there are no traditional minor league statistics, but he’s healthy for the first time in a few years and pitching really, really well.”

Pitching coach Carl Willis echoed similar sentiments.

“We didn’t really plan for what happened, so as far as the timeline went, it lined up perfectly,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “I have to give him a lot of credit. I know that in his outings at Lake County he doesn’t just go out and try to get hitters out. He is using the time to improve himself. He’s had situations there where he gets into counts and maybe he could blow a guy away with his fastball or bounce a curveball, but yet he’s throwing changeups, he’s throwing sliders.

Some of the biggest attributes that scouts typically tag McKenzie with is makeup and pitching “feel” (also great command and a devastating curveball, but that’s neither here nor there). Both are pretty nebulous descriptors, but they seem to fit McKenzie to a tee. If anyone could come back from more than a year of pitching in organized ball and still perform well, based purely on his intelligence and willingness to learn, it’s McKenzie.

All the praise and dominant outings in the lower levels of the minors came with a simple fastball-curveball arsenal and without much velocity. That’s partially the reason he’s slipped into a projection of a reliever, with the hope that his velocity will tick up on shortened outings and he can get by with two pitches. But if he has been working on improving his slider and changeup, as Willis alluded to, we could be looking at the starting pitcher we dreamed of when McKenzie was just a 19-year-old dominating the minors.

McKenzie carried a strikeouts-per-nine in the double digits at every level of the minors until he reached Double-A in 2018. There, in 16 starts, he was still able to hold opposing batters to a .191 average and his walk rate stayed consistent, but his strikeout rate dropped to 8.64 per nine. We don’t have the Statcast data to know exactly how hard he was being hit, but Double-A batters hit line drives just 17.8% of the time and pulled the ball 41% of the time. Neither are indicators that they were blistering the ball all over the field. Instead, he induced a lot of infield fly balls — almost 40% in the lowest levels of the minors, and 26.3% of the time in Double-A. That number will come down, and could turn into more dangerous fly balls, in the majors.

McKenzie’s debut will come at an odd time for several reasons. Of course, the global pandemic shortening the season and him making the jump — on paper — straight from Double-A to the majors after more than a year off is strange enough. But without two of his teammates deciding to break safety protocols and take off in the middle of the night in Chicago, he might never have gotten the call in the first place. He has leapfrogged “safer” choices for the spot start in Logan Allen, Scott Moss, and Jefry Rodriguez.

Getting a start here also means that the Indians are starting McKenzie’s clock, setting him up to be a free agent after the 2027 season if my napkin math is correct. It’s likely this is more than just a one-and-done for the young right-hander. Either it’s some kind of audition for a trade, a chance to prove he can stick in the rotation, or one outing before he’s sent to be another dangerous option out of the Tribe bullpen. But simply bringing him up for one start and sending him back down would be an odd move. The Indians are notoriously cagey with their roster management, so it could be a bit of everything and we won’t know until he’s already in his fourth start or out the door on his way to another team.

Of course, if the Indians find it in themselves to forgive Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger for potentially exposing them to a deadly disease, the rotation is already pretty full. In that case, McKenzie looks more like a relief option for this year, at least. But if even one of them does not return, a spot is suddenly open for McKenzie to get a start every five days.

His primary battle at this point will be the bottom of the rotation with Adam Plutko. While he may be an all-around great guy, Adam Plutko has not proved to be a great pitcher. He carries a 5.23 career ERA and a strikeout rate of 17.1%. Other than a curveball that sits in the 90th percentile for its spin rate, there is nothing remarkable about him. He’s only 28 and out of options, though, so he’s not going anywhere even if that means a shift to the bullpen.

No matter what the future holds, it starts right tonight for Triston McKenzie. Good luck, Sticks.