Two pitchers in Cleveland Indians history have debuted with 10-or-more strikeouts. Luis Tiant and his career 54.8 fWAR over a brilliant 18-year career did so when he debuted in 1964, and 23-year-old Triston McKenzie did it tonight.
Fulfilling a prophecy put foreseen by Todd Isaacs Jr., McKenzie struck out 10 Tigers batters in his debut tonight and looked worth every bit of his hype in the process. The big right-hander had a couple mistake pitches, which you’d expect from a debut, but he also showed off a higher velocity than ever before and a changeup and slider that no one outside of Eastlake, Ohio could be sure that he had.
We’ll get to McKenzie’s signature fastball-curveball combo in a minute, but let’s start with those new pitches.
Prior to the game, assistant pitching coach Ruben Niebla said that McKenzie had developed a slider in the year-plus since he’s been on a pitching mound in a real game. He also said that he was working on making his changeup “servicable” in that time. It’s the smallest of sample sizes, but so far it looks like that work has paid off.
McKenzie threw the changeup nine times and the slider seven times. Combined, they induced four of his 17 whiffs on the night and only the changeup was put into play. Two of the four times Tigers batters put the changeup out in the field came in the first inning, and both were weakly hit for easy outs. One changeup, in the fourth inning, was a clearly misplaced ball over the heart of the plate that Willi Castro crushed for a home run — we’ll chalk that up to a learning experience.
Despite not pitching in an official baseball game in almost two years, McKenzie came out with no fear. He started the game with eight-straight strikes, pumping his fastball eight times in that first frame and his new-look changeup three times. Adrenaline may have played a part in his velocity sitting 96 in the first couple innings, but once he got into a groove, he easily sat 94-95 (and spiked back up to 96 in his final few at-bats). Combined with the extension of his massive arms, he can easily make that velocity work for him, especially when he locates the fastball as well as he does.
We also got a glimpse at his curveball, which was thrown 18 times and whiffed on twice. It wasn’t used as an out pitch quite yet — instead, his fastball accounted for nine of his strike-three calls (seven whiffs, two called), and his slider induced a swinging third strike in the first inning.
Despite all the nerves and the limbs he has to control, McKenzie repeated his delivery well throughout his six innings of work:
If he is ever going to make it work with a heavy fastball-curveball combo, this is essential. And so far, he nailed it.
McKenzie also features one of those fabled “rising” fastballs, where the release point and high spin rate make it appear as though his four-seamer is defying gravity and actually rising as it approaches the plate. It allowed McKenzie to elevate his fastball to a mystifying degree, shedding batting averages and helmets like they were nothing.
Triston McKenzie, dehelmeting 96mph Fastball.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 23, 2020
10th K. pic.twitter.com/J21J0ePPio
Surprisingly, the Indians offense decided to support their starting pitcher tonight. It took a while, but once Domingo Santana doubled a trio of runs home in the sixth inning the runs kept coming. The top third of the lineup, which has been a big letdown for most of the year, combined to go 7-for-12 on the night. Francisco Lindor and César Hernández each doubled, while José Ramírez drew a walk and snapped an 0-for-20 streak with his first hit since Aug. 15.
Some potential injury news came before and during the game. Sandy Alomar revealed that José Ramírez has apparently been battling a nagging thumb injury in the pre-game media session, and Delino DeShields Jr. appeared to tweak something running down a fly ball. He was replaced by Greg Allen, who got a hit in two at-bats.
Nick Wittgren, James Karinchak, and Adam Cimber combined to keep the Tigers scoreless in the final three frames, and Triston McKenzie left his first-ever start a winner.