McKenzie (3 1/3 IP) hurt by free passes

Indians have decision to make about rookie's spot in rotation

May 22nd, 2021

CLEVELAND -- The Indians know that starter needs repetitions after missing two years due to injuries and only having limited time on the mound in the shortened 2020 season. But how much longer can those repetitions come in Cleveland’s rotation?

McKenzie watched his ERA climb to 6.89 and his walk total jump to 30 in 31 1/3 innings on Friday night, as he permitted six runs on just two hits with five walks in 3 1/3 frames in the Indians’ 10-0 loss to the Twins at Progressive Field.

“I feel like sometimes I just kind of let the games beat up on me,” McKenzie said, “which isn’t supposed to happen at this level.”

The 23-year-old rookie said he’s been working on his delivery in between each start to make sure his mechanics stay as consistent as possible as soon as he gets on the rubber. But the problem may be less in his delivery and more in his head.

Indians manager Terry Francona said prior to the series opener against Minnesota that he didn’t think McKenzie’s struggles had anything to do with his mindset. He simply thought that all the problems have come from a lack of command. But McKenzie admitted that it’s been difficult to keep a level head through these difficulties.

“I feel like as of late, it’s been kind of a slippery slope,” McKenzie said, of his mindset. “It’s kind of like one walk happens and instead of it being like, 'Attack this next guy,' it’s kind of like, 'Don’t let another one happen,' and I feel like I got to get out of that mindset.”

For a prospect who was consistently able to keep his walk rate down, those free passes have quickly become McKenzie’s biggest hurdle to overcome. His 30 walks rank the most among all pitchers in the Majors who have thrown at least 30 innings so far this season. St. Louis’ John Gant trails him with 28 walks in 39 2/3 frames. And the last hurler in Indians history to have at least 30 walks in his first eight appearances was Ubaldo Jiménez (32 walks, 46 innings in 2012).

“When he loses the strike zone it's like he gets to a point, and he's trying to stay away from contact and trying to be too perfect, and the walks are piling up,” Francona said. “He only gave up a couple hits, but they got a big inning going.”

Start after start, McKenzie has been lights out in the first inning, owning a 1.29 ERA in the opening frame. But nearly every time he’s toed the rubber, especially as of late, he’s run into a clunker of a frame where he loses his command, and the fourth inning has been the most challenging on him so far. He’s pitched in a total of 5 1/3 frames in the fourth inning this year, owning an 18.56 ERA with nine walks.

“I feel like it’s been kind of a common theme in all my starts, the walks,” McKenzie said. “I feel like we worked on some delivery stuff leading up to this start, in between my previous starts, just trying to make sure everything stays consistent once I get out there. I feel like now it just comes down to a mindset thing and making sure I’m in the zone.”

The Indians have given McKenzie ample time to work through these kinks, but his walk rate is still at an alarming pace. Cleveland went through a similar process earlier in the year after starter Logan Allen got off to a shaky start. The lefty posted a 9.19 ERA in five starts and was optioned to Triple-A following his last outing. What’s left to determine is how long of a leash McKenzie will have to figure it out at the big league level.

“I feel like we’ve been doing a good job as a team, collectively, just going out there and playing ball,” McKenzie said. “I feel like if I can eliminate those, we can win some games.”