What to expect from McKay in his first callup

June 28th, 2019

One of the top pitching prospects in baseball is set to make his Major League debut after the Rays announced on Friday afternoon that they would promote left-hander Brendan McKay from Triple-A Durham to start Saturday’s game against the Rangers at Tropicana Field.

The Rays’ decision to call up McKay comes in the wake of their 5-2, 18-inning victory against the Twins on Thursday in a game that saw the club use nine different pitchers, including Saturday’s scheduled starter, Ryan Yarbrough, who worked the final three frames.

McKay, who is Tampa Bay’s No. 2 prospect as well as No. 23 overall on MLB Pipeline’s list of the Top 100 prospects, will get his first taste of the big leagues a little more than two years after the Rays selected him with the No. 4 pick in the 2017 Draft out of Louisville. He was a three-time recipient of the John Olerud Award as the top two-way player in college baseball.

As a junior, McKay went 11-3 with a 2.56 ERA and Louisville-record 146 strikeouts on the mound while also batting .341 with 18 home runs and 57 RBIs. The performance earned him both the Golden Spikes and Dick Howser Awards as college baseball's top player.

Though he’s continued to play both ways in the professional ranks, it became clear early in McKay’s pro career that he had a considerably brighter future as a pitcher.

A pair of oblique injuries limited McKay to just 78 1/3 innings on the mound during his first full season in 2018, but he still performed well when healthy, posting a 2.41 ERA and 0.88 WHIP across 19 outings (17 starts). He racked up 103 strikeouts against just 14 walks and held opposing hitters to a .196 average while finishing the season in the Class A Advanced Florida State League.

At the plate, however, the left-handed-hitting McKay batted just .214/.368/.359 over 56 games, 28 of which he played as a first baseman.

That discrepancy between his success as a pitcher and hitter, combined with the fact he suffered the second of his oblique injuries while swinging, prompted the Rays to dial back the 23-year-old’s two-way usage in 2019. The club deemed it best for McKay’s development to limit him strictly to designated hitter duties rather than continuing to shift him between DH and first base in accordance with his pitching schedule.

It turned out to be a wise move -- one that has allowed McKay to emerge as one of the more dominant hurlers in the Minors this season en route to the Major Leagues.

Opening the season at Double-A Montgomery, McKay registered a 1.30 ERA and 0.82 WHIP over 41 2/3 innings in the Southern League, during which he compiled 62 strikeouts against nine walks and held hitters to a paltry .172 clip. He’s been even better since his a promotion to Triple-A in late May, posting a 1.08 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and .155 BAA, with 26 strikeouts and six walks, across 25 frames.

The Darlington, Penn., native went 6-0 with a 1.22 ERA in 13 outings (11 starts) between the two stops, racking up 88 punchouts against 15 walks and allowing only 38 hits (.166 BAA) in 66 2/3 frames.

And while he’s batted .205/.313/.331 overall this season while appearing in 38 games as a DH, McKay’s offensive production has picked up in his brief time at the Triple-A level in the form of a .265/.400/.551 slash line and four home runs in 15 games.

But since he’ll be making his debut as a pitcher on Saturday, here’s a preview of what the 6-foot-2, 212-pounder should bring to the table when he takes the mound against the Rangers:

Fastball: McKay operates in the 91- to 95-mph range with his heater, but it tends to play at a higher effective velocity because the left-hander gets good extension over his front side toward the plate and features some natural deception in his exceptionally smooth delivery. As a result, he’s able to beat hitters and generates whiffs inside the strike zone with the pitch. McKay can locate his fastball with precision, comfortably pitching to both sides of the plate while demonstrating a particularly advanced feel for spotting on the outside corner against right-handed hitters.

Cutter: Checking in around 90 mph, McKay’s cutter -- a pitch that he added to his arsenal as a Louisville junior -- helps to keep hitters from sitting on his fastball. He adeptly manipulates the action of the pitch, too, at times imparting a harder, tighter spin that makes it play more like a slider than a true cutter. And much like his fastball, McKay knows how to spot the pitch against right-handed hitters, as he’ll throw it backdoor for called strikes while also showing aptitude for working it under the guys’ hands on the inner half.

Curveball: McKay’s low-80s curveball is a plus offering and his go-to secondary pitch, one that he’s comfortable throwing in any count against hitters on the both sides of the plate. He can drop it into the zone for a called strike as he desires, but also possesses the ability to bury it in the dirt when vying for whiffs. With its tight spin, late break and natural downer action, hitters tend to give up on the pitch early and frequently chase it out of the zone.

Changeup: Unsurprisingly, McKay also has a very good changeup that’s consistently an above-average pitch for him and regularly plays as plus, registering at 84-85 mph. He masks it with fastball-like arm speed and turns it over nicely to create late tumbling action as well as some arm-side fade.

Control: McKay’s 11.9 strikeouts-per-nine and 2.0 BB/9 in the upper levels of the Minors this season underscore his plus control, and his command is only slightly behind, receiving above-average grades from scouts. Those rates have held steady throughout his rise through the Minors, too, as he’ll get his first taste of the big leagues after averaging 11.6 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 across 165 frames in pro ball. The fact that McKay has held hitters to a .179 average and just nine homers (0.5 HR/9) highlights just how difficult it is to square up the southpaw, and he’s been equally effective against both right- (.160/.216/.246) and left-handed hitters (.185/.241/.222) so far in 2019.

It’s yet to be seen whether the Rays will continue deploy McKay as a member of their rotation -- or perhaps use him as a long man following an opener -- beyond Saturday’s start, but there’s little doubt among evaluators that he’s ready to pitch in the big leagues.

One thing to keep in mind is that McKay, who has already logged 66 2/3 innings in 2019, is quickly approaching his career-high workload of 78 1/3 innings from last year. He’ll surely surpass that total, but the Rays have carefully managed McKay’s workload early in his career, especially in the wake of his two oblique injuries, and will likely continue to do so to some extent as the season unfolds.