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2021 Guardians #9 MVP: Triston McKenzie

McKenzie gave Cleveland exactly what was needed in 2021, and that was awfully valuable

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Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

I’ve been casting my vote in our daily polls for the last few days for Triston McKenzie, so when he fell to ninth (and my recap) I was happy, but also indignant. In terms of raw value, McKenzie was not the most valuable pitcher in the organization — he was third on the team in fWAR — but in terms of value to the 2021 Cleveland organization, I’d argue the only pitcher better than Dr. Sticks was Cal Quantrill and his breakout campaign.

When we look back at this weird and almost entirely forgettable season, injuries stand out as one of the most important things that happened. Those myriad ailments robbed the Guardians of any chance they might have had to contend for a playoff spot and, thus, shifted the conversation about what was valuable — at least in my opinion. Yes, José Ramírez casually having another top-five MVP voting season is valuable, but it didn’t have much lasting effect, unfortunately. Triston McKenzie pitching 120 innings and spending only 10 days on the injured list showed the team and the fans that he is capable of being a presence in the rotation, and that has future value.

Saddled with the top prospect status practically since the moment he was selected 42nd overall in the 2015 draft, McKenzie has carried the burden of expectation throughout his professional career. His slight, 6’5”, 165-pound frame never seemed like it could manage those expectations, however. After nearly two full years off due to injury, McKenzie made the leap from Double-A to the majors last year and impressed in just 33.1 innings, compiling 0.6 fWAR over the abbreviated 2020 campaign. That brief stint with Cleveland only heightened expectations, despite the team trying to ease him in by having him start the season in the bullpen.

Even though his 2021 featured some rocky moments and some trips on I-71 to Columbus, what McKenzie did with the Guardians was just about all the team could ask of the 23-year-old right-hander. This season, McKenzie threw 120 innings in Cleveland and 21.1 in Columbus, just shy of his career-high for a season (143 for Akron in 2018); perhaps, more importantly, he didn’t just throw that many innings, he pitched well in the second half, holding opponents to a .292 wOBA over 70.2 IP. Almost all of his numbers were better in the second half, despite missing 10 days with shoulder fatigue at the end of August.

Triston McKenzie Splits

1st Half 49.1 5.47 4.95 4.78 12.41 7.3 0.302
2nd Half 70.2 4.58 4.53 4.36 8.66 2.29 0.292

Since 2001, just 35 players have thrown 120 IP in their age-23 season; 17 of those players had more fWAR than McKenzie did in 2021 (1.1), but 10 players were within 1 fWAR of his total. Being roughly a middle-of-the-pack pitcher among a group of stud pitchers is not a bad place to be. All season long, McKenzie struggled to limit walks and home runs, but that seems to be the way it goes with young pitchers. McKenzie’s 4.35 BB/9 and 1.58 HR/9 look like some of the best Cleveland pitchers of this century: CC Sabathia’s first season (2001, age 20) he had 4.74 BB/9 and 0.95 HR/9; Cliff Lee’s first year with >50 IP (2004, age 25) he had 4.07 BB/9 and 1.20 HR/9; and Carlos Carrasco’s first year with >50 IP (2011, age 24) he had 2.82 BB/9 and 1.08 HR/9.

Perhaps most encouragingly, Sticks knows where he has room to improve and he has the will to do so. In a great piece by Zack Meisel of The Athletic from August, McKenzie detailed specific at-bats, with good and bad outcomes, with exacting detail. He’s clearly a student of the game who is committed to his craft. Perhaps more important still, he’s got the right mindset. In that same article he detailed his mindset:

“All my struggles this year have been internal. There was nothing that showed I wasn’t ready to perform at this level. There was nobody on the other team who was absolutely dominating me to the point where I felt, like, ‘I can’t get that guy out.’ I had to go out there and see that, ‘OK, your stuff isn’t necessarily bad, you’re just not helping your case.’”

McKenzie is not ace material right now, but he doesn’t have to be with Shane Bieber in the rotation. He doesn’t even have to be top-of-the-rotation material right now after what Quantrill showed this year and what we know Aaron Civale is capable of. What the Guardians need from McKenzie is an ability to provide a bulk of quality innings at the back of the rotation, and he absolutely proved he could do that in 2021. And that’s why his season was so valuable by my estimation, because I’m certain he’ll improve as well. When he does, maybe those top prospect expectations won’t weigh so heavy on his slender frame any longer.

  • Andres Gimenez: .218/.282/.351, 5 HR, 11 SB, 5.2 BB%, 25.7 K%, 73 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR
  • Eli Morgan: 89.1 IP, 5.34 ERA, 21.4 K%, 5.8 BB%, 4.51 SIERA, 0.4 fWAR
  • Zach Plesac: 142.2 IP, 4.67 ERA, 16.7 K%, 5.7 BB%, 4.73 SIERA, 1.1 fWAR
  • Bradley Zimmer: 227/.325/.344, 8 HR, 15 SB, 8.6 BB%, 35.1 K%, 89 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR


Who should be our No. 10 Guardians players for 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Andres Gimenez
    (4 votes)
  • 26%
    Eli Morgan
    (15 votes)
  • 45%
    Zach Plesac
    (26 votes)
  • 21%
    Bradley Zimmer
    (12 votes)
57 votes total Vote Now