GIF Breakdown: Triston McKenzie’s MLB debut in 27 GIFs

Saturday was Triston McKenzie's first game action since August of 2018.

On August 30, 2018, Triston McKenzie threw six shutout innings against the Bowie Baysox, lowering his season ERA to 2.68 across 16 starts with Cleveland’s AA affiliate. It was the last time McKenzie threw in a regular season game, as a back strain in spring training shut him down indefinitely to begin the 2019 season, and a pec strain reared its ugly head while he was recovering from the back injury, putting him on the shelf for all of 2019 and removing him from the minds of all but the biggest prospect diehards in the fantasy baseball industry.

McKenzie is back now and set to make his big league debut against the Detroit Tigers, capping off what has been an exciting week of pitching prospect debuts in the AL Central, which began with Detroit’s Tarik Skubal and included a mid-week bout between Casey Mize and Dane Dunning of the Tigers and White Sox, respectively.

Prior to the injury, the 23-year-old McKenzie joined Cleveland’s organization as the 42nd overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft. He rose quickly through the system and broke out in a huge way in 2017, posting a 3.46 ERA and a 32.8% strikeout rate in 25 starts at High-A, leading to him showing up all over top-100 prospect lists heading into 2018.

As I write this before first pitch, I’m curious about two big things heading into McKenzie’s debut: will he have a set pitch count in this contest, and will we get a glimpse of the slider he has reportedly been working on adding to his arsenal at the team’s alternate site. Armed with a low-90’s fastball that plays up thanks to his deceptive delivery, as well as a plus curveball, McKenzie’s path to success in the big leagues hinges on whether he can develop a strong third pitch. His changeup has never looked very promising, but adding a hard slider/cutter would do wonders for his pitch mix, and his already plus command could make him a more than serviceable fantasy asset.

I’ll dig more into his 2020 fantasy relevance at the end of this breakdown, but it is safe to say that will all hinge on whether he keeps a role in the rotation when Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac are done serving their timeout for violating the team’s COVID-19 protocol.

Alright, that’s enough intro – let’s dig into McKenzie’s first big league start, using 27 GIFs.

 

First Inning

 

McKenzie went 94 down and away for his first big league offering, showing what I expect to be the high-end of his velocity.

Well, that was quickly proven wrong as each of McKenzie’s next three pitches were either 95 or 96. He is clearly juiced up for this outing – and a year away from the game seems to have given him some added velocity, which is really exciting.

He eventually got a groundout on an 88 mile per hour change up off the plate that had Reyes reaching way out in front.

That’s going to be a big thing to watch here. If McKenzie can locate his changeup off the plate away he’s going to have plenty of success, but the pitch itself doesn’t look overly impressive, so that location will be key.

McKenzie came back with a heater to start off Willi Castro, before showing us a much, much nicer looking changeup to generate a swing and miss.

Castro, a former teammate of McKenzie’s in Cleveland’s farm system, even had to give a chuckle after his big hack at that pitch. McKenzie followed that up with a high fastball that was fouled off, a promising sign that we may see the young right-hander following the BSB in this outing. (For those uninitiated, the BSB is the Blake Snell blueprint, a formula of attacking hitters up with fastballs and down with breaking stuff).

After throwing strikes with each of his first eight pitches, McKenzie finally missed with his first curveball of the outing, although it’s easy to see why that pitch is so highly touted:

That thing looks like a dang yo-yo, and with 15 miles per hour difference from his heater, this pitch has the makings of a plus offering – and a staple on the nastiest pitches articles when he’s locating it.

McKenzie missed middle-middle with an 88 mile per hour changeup that he was very fortunate was harmlessly hit back to him on the ground, although again, if he sits there too much he will get punished.

Next up was Miguel Cabrera, and I love that McKenzie immediately challenged him with a pair of fastballs down in the zone, leading to a foul ball and a swing and miss.

Then, McKenzie dropped that revamped slider and oh my sweet lord it was filthy. While he probably needs this thing to be a little closer to the corner to get more whiffs, the movement is so deceptive that future Hall of Fame slugger Miguel Cabrera looked just as bad as the high-A hitters McKenzie was dominating back in 2017.

An easy first inning has me even more intrigued by McKenzie, especially now that we have a look at that new slider, but the changeup has flashed across the plate too much for my liking. Let’s see what is in store in inning No. 2.

 

Second Inning

 

While McKenzie threw 12 of his 13 pitches in the first inning for strikes, he immediately got behind Jonathan Schoop 3-0 after missing away with two curveballs and a fastball in on the hands.

However, he showed his maturity by coming back with three straight fastballs to send Schoop back to the dugout. I love the calmness to come back from down 3-0 and get a strikeout, but all three of these pitches were piped and he’s pretty lucky the red-hot Schoop didn’t do anything with them.

McKenzie came back with another fastball that caught too much plate to Jeimer Candelario, followed by a bad changeup up above the strike zone and a nice curveball off the plate away that Candelario wisely laid off.

However, he followed suit with another changeup, this one perfectly located down and away for a strike.

The changeup is a nice pitch when he’s locating it, and I feel much more confident in his overall arsenal after seeing what this pitch is capable of – but we need to see consistency in that command before we can trust him regularly.

After getting an easy groundout, McKenzie once again got behind 3-0 – this time to JaCoby Jones, and after another get-me-over fastball he missed down and away with the curveball, giving up the first base runner of his career.

I love that McKenzie responded by trying to sneak a changeup past Christin Stewart with the first pitch, but he just missed and he’s now behind his third batter of the inning – not great for a guy lauded for his command.

However, McKenzie got bailed out by a caught stealing from Jones, and he heads to the dugout having only allowed one base runner through his first two innings.

 

Third Inning

 

After a first pitch fastball was harmlessly grounded out by Stewart, McKenzie started Austin Romine out with a 94 mile per hour fastball before three straight curveballs resulted in a 2-2 count. A middle-middle slider was fouled off and McKenzie took advantage by going up the elevator with a 94 mile per hour fastball that Romine swung through for another strikeout. Blake Snell would be proud.

McKenzie started fellow rookie Isaac Paredes with a pair of fastballs, one at 94 just off the plate and another right down broadway at 95.

We then saw another glimpse of McKenzie’s slider, this one just off the plate, before he went back to the fastball up at the top of the zone that was fouled back, again at 94, before he all the sudden brought out this bad boy:

97 down and away, right on the black, are you kidding me McKenzie? We’ve seen 93-95 all game, and to be able to reach back for 97 in a near-perfect location is absolute filth. This kid is not showing any signs of rust, fatigue, or nerves so far in this outing, and his four pitch mix has been on display. Now he heads into the fourth inning having faced the minimum, giving him another shot through the order.

 

Fourth Inning

 

McKenzie started Reyes off with a curveball this time, and even though it caught too much of the plate it was fouled back, setting him up for a fastball just out of the zone and then a changeup that missed well below the zone, but that generated a swing from Reyes anyway.

McKenzie followed up with a fastball up in the zone (duh) and got a harmless line out.

Things finally went awry for the young right-hander here, as McKenzie tried to sneak a changeup past the left-handed swinging Willi Castro, but Castro snuffed it out and blasted it well into the right field seats for the first hit, and the first run, of the game.

I knew McKenzie’s poor location on the changeup would come back to bite him, and if he wants this pitch to be a usable offering against left-handers he’s going to need to locate it better, flat out. No offense to Castro, but McKenzie will face a lot of better left-handed hitters in his career, and this pitch won’t cut it.

Once again, McKenzie showed off poise and resolve that is not always present in 23-year-old rookies who have not pitched in two years. He just gave up his first career home run, and was facing an MLB icon in Cabrera, but he made quick work of him by getting two quick strikes with 96 mile per hour heat, and after wasting a curveball well off the plate he came back with 96 at the top of the zone, blowing it straight past Miggy with some authority. This at-bat was too good not to share in its entirety, so here it is in four unique GIFs:

Tasty. Look I know Miggy isn’t the same guy he used to be (sadly) but this is still a ridiculous pitch sequence, and to have the poise to go straight after a dude with nearly 500 career home runs after giving up a jack shows the fortitude this young man has – which will serve him very well going forward.

McKenzie finished the fourth with a three-pitch out of Schoop, looping a curveball over the plate for strike one, missing a fastball away and getting a fly out on another fastball up above the zone.

As long as Detroit’s hitters are going to keep offering at that hard fastball above the strike zone, and they probably will, McKenzie should have success.

Let’s see what is in store heading into inning five, and with 57 pitches under his belt.

 

Fifth Inning

 

McKenzie got in trouble right away in the fifth. After throwing a decent 94 mile per hour fastball on the outside corner, Candelario still managed to get good wood on it and sent it off the wall for a double.

For just the second time all game, McKenzie has a runner on base and I’m excited to see how he responds.

His first pitch was a discouraging 92 mile per hour fastball up in the zone, his slowest fastball of the day. However, he came back with a sharp curveball below the zone that Jones whiffed at, and then went up the ladder for 94 (whew) that generated another swing and a miss and his sixth strikeout of the game.

This type of sequencing, a curveball down and away followed by a fastball up, will lead to plenty of success for McKenzie, especially if he can make one of his other secondaries (likely the slider, for my money) a true out pitch.

Now he faces another lefty in Stewart, and he attacks with 93 off the plate inside followed by a pair of curveballs down the heart of the plate. It seems like McKenzie has gone away from his changeup to left-handers after giving up the home run, which isn’t a huge surprise but is something he will need to feel comfortable going back to if he wants to stick in the rotation.

Instead of going up with the fastball on a 1-2 count, McKenzie goes down and away at 93, surprising Stewart and getting a called strike three.

After a leadoff double, the youngster managed to get two straight strikeouts – a testament to his poise on the bump (and Detroit’s woeful ability to hit with runners in scoring position).

Two down, runner on second, one run game, and McKenzie pumps 93 right down broadway that catcher Austin Romine just watches go by. Being a Tigers fan must be hard.

At this point I’m starting to wonder if McKenzie, who is at 65 pitches and in his first game action in two years, is starting to wear down. It would be understandable, obviously, but I’m also curious to see how he pitches when he’s a little gassed.

McKenzie goes 94 up and away for strike two and then gets away with a meh slider at 87 miles per hour that caught far too much of the plate, but was fouled back. The slider can flatten out from what we’ve seen in this outing, and the shape has changed throughout – a sign he has some work to do to fine tune what could be among his best offerings when he gets it down.

Just after I express some concern about the durability, McKenzie does what else but go fastball up for strike three, an incredible inning that showed off his maturity and poise to keep this a one-run game, despite the leadoff double.

The fifth showed a lot of mental toughness from McKenzie, but we are starting to see things deteriorate just a tad, with diminished velocity and some location issues. Will be interesting to see how he responds in the sixth.

 

Sixth Inning

 

McKenzie went right after Paredes in the sixth inning, going fastball up and away for a called strike one and following up with another nasty curveball down that Paredes embarrassingly flailed at.

I think the hard slider could get there, but right now this curveball is clearly McKenzie’s best secondary, and it’s absolute butter when he’s located it just below the zone.

He then went back to the high fastball, his true bread-and-butter (again with the butter? maybe I’m hungry) and got yet another strikeout, his ninth of the day.

In a year where MLB debuts have not been exceptionally good (looking at you Nate Pearson, Spencer Howard and Tarik Skubal) of course it was McKenzie who came out and shoved on day one.

McKenzie started the left-handed hitting Reyes out with a pair of curveballs off the plate, before finally going back to the changeup at 2-0:

Oooof. He’s lucky Reyes doesn’t pack a lot of punch, because that thing should have landed in Flo from Progressive’s glove out there in right center. If I’m going to nitpick anything in this start, it’s his changeup command. That pitch will be a big separator for him establishing himself as a big league starter, and right now there is still work to be done.

McKenzie once again relied heavily on his curveball to Castro – who took the changeup deep in the fourth inning – throwing two straight to get to 0-2. He tried the high-heat but missed up, but no matter – he came back with 96 right down the pipe that Castro swung straight through for his tenth – and final – strikeout of the game.

Gotta love when a guy throws a 94 mile per hour fastball with his first pitch of the game, and brings 96 on his 80th pitch. Pure wizardry.

All told, McKenzie gave up one run on two hits with one walk and 10 strikeouts across six magnificent innings, a masterful performance for a Cleveland squad that already has an embarrassment of riches in the rotation.

 

Conclusion

 

It’s hard not be excited about this. McKenzie’s fastball velocity sat 94-96 most of the game, his curveball is as advertised, and the new-look slider showed flashes of true excellence. His changeup is still lagging behind, and that slider flattened out at points, but McKenzie also sports a ton of poise, excellent command, maturity and a fiery competitiveness that really showed through as he battled adversity in the fifth inning.

The results were excellent, with a 48% CSW on his fastball and 39% on his curveball, and he utilized the BSB full well to his advantage – as this chart from the in-game graphics displayed:

I know there will be tons of people wondering who is worth dropping to snag McKenzie off the waiver wire, and while I love the potential he has to contribute in redraft leagues, I’m just not sure if he’ll get another turn in the rotation with Plesac and Clevinger likely coming back next week. Plesac, Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco and Aaron Civale is already a crowded rotation, and that doesn’t even include Adam Plutko.

Of course, it’s really hard to just ignore a guy who struck out 10 in his first big league start, so this is a wait-and-see in shallower formats and a speculation add in deeper leagues while we figure out how Cleveland plans to proceed with their next new shiny pitching toy.

 

Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Andy Patton

Andy is the Dynasty Content Manager here at PitcherList. He manages all of the prospect content on the site, while also contributing a weekly article on dynasty deep sleepers, and the weekly hitter and pitcher stash lists. Andy also co-hosts the Never Sunny in Seattle podcast on the PitcherList Podcast Network, and separately hosts the Score Zags Score Podcast.

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