Triston McKenzie does not have anything left to prove after shutting down the Rays for 6.0 innings in the second game of the Wild Card. But if there are any doubters left out there following a 3.6 fWAR regular season and dominating postseason performance, he can silence them all with another strong outing against the Yankees tonight.
The ALDS returns to Cleveland for the first time since 2018 when the Guards were swept out of the playoffs by the Astros. At that time McKenzie — then a top prospect in the Cleveland organization — was out “indefinitely” with a back strain, while a rotator cuff injury and another muscle strain would keep him out of the entire 2019 season. I don’t know how McKenzie himself felt, or how the Guardians saw his progress, but on the outside, it sure looked like his career was slowly entering a death spiral.
There were already concerns about his thin frame and durability when he reached the majors and he was having trouble even making it through a minor-league season. After months of radio silence from Cleveland, was that it for his career? Another promising young pitcher proving that TINSTAAPP is real.
Then Cleveland made the daring move to bring him straight to the majors in 2020 having last pitched in Double-A two years prior, and what a move it was. Some hiccups in 2021 led to his worst professional season, but 2022 has been a breakout for McKenzie, who is still only 25 years old and not even arbitration eligible until 2024. He’s strictly a fastball-slider-curveball pitcher, with a four-seamer that only touches 93 mph but looks a lot faster thanks to his elite extension.
Speaking of extension, Baseball Savant finally includes it in their percentile rankings, and unsurprisingly, McKenzie is among the best. He ranks in the 87th percentile, meaning he’s adding a lot of extra “perceived” velocity as he releases the ball closer to the mound than a pitcher with shorter arms would. He’s not technically throwing the ball harder, but with the shorter time that batters have to react to the pitch, he might as well be. This year he leveraged that length, as well as a deceptive slider/curveball combo to put up a 2.96 ERA over 191.1 innings.
McKenzie has been especially good at limiting hard contact down the stretch, with his xwOBA against reaching new depths. He carried a 2.56 ERA from the beginning of August through the end of the regular season and walked only 14 batters in 77.1 innings.
McKenzie faced the Yankees just once this season, on July 2, but it was a spectacular showing. Over 7.0 shutout innings, he struck out seven Yankee batters, effectively shutting down a team that — at the time — looked unbeatable. He didn’t do it with overpowering swing-and-miss stuff (he only induced 10 swinging strikes), but his perfectly located fastball was called for a strike 10 times and he only allowed a handful of hard hits. Franmil Reyes, Sandy León, and Ernie Clement all had harder-hit balls than Joey Gallo that day.
The Yankee offense is not the juggernaut it seemed midway through the 2022 season, but the goal for McKenzie should be the same: attack, attack, attack. He led off at-bats in that July start mostly with off-speed pitches (62.5% of the time), and then turned to the fastball up and out of the zone.
Aaron Judge has looked awful so far in the ALDS, so getting him to chase anything and everything should be the goal. Harrison Bader, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and rookie Oswaldo Cabrera are also susceptible to chasing pitches a third of the time. Where McKenzie really succeeds is deception in the zone — i.e. getting batters to swing a fastball that looks juicy but is actually not in their bat path. Some of the lowest contact rates in the zone on the Yankees this season included Giancarlo Stanton (74.7%), Josh Donaldson (75.5%), and Gleybar Torres (82.4%).
We saw in Game 2 Friday afternoon that this Yankee team can be beaten, and I think McKenzie has the arsenal to do it.
Opposite McKenzie will be Luis Severino, a right-hander who looked like he was on track to be an ace until injuries knocked out the better part of three seasons. Severino, 28, pitched just 18.0 innings between 2019 and 2021 partially because, as Yankees GM Brian Cashman admitted in June 2019, the team mishandled his return from shoulder and lat injuries and had him start pitching too early.
Severino picked up right where he left off this season, though, carrying a 3.18 ERA through 19 starts (102 innings). Even with all the setbacks, his fastball has hardly lost a beat — it still sings at 96 mph in 2022 as it did in his rookie 2015 season. Like most pitchers recently, he’s also working in an occasional cutter this season to go with his four-seamer, changeup, and slider.
It’s that slider Guardians batters will really have to worry about, as Severino used it as a putaway pitch 29.3% of the time and was able to get swings and misses 41.6% of the time in the regular season. It’s a big sweeping menace with well-above-average vertical drop (40.8 inches, 4.7 more than average) and horizontal break (10.3 inches, 4.3 more than average).
Severino hasn’t pitched since Oct. 3, which might play in the Guardians’ favor. Granted, that last outing was 7.0 no-hit innings against the Rangers, but pitchers are notoriously creatures of habit, and Severino’s habit is thoroughly disrupted right now.