'Tunneled in' Kranick perfect in MLB debut

June 28th, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- To understand how went from Minor Leaguer to Major Leaguer after only seven games at Double-A or higher, one must consider how the Pirates have remade their player development philosophy.

To understand how he dominated on Sunday in his MLB debut after a pandemic season and only few reps above High-A, though, one must consider the amazing amount of work he put in to remake his game.

Kranick, the Pirates’ No. 26 prospect, fired five perfect innings in a 7-2 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday at Busch Stadium for his first Major League win.

Kranick was unable to further his perfect-game bid despite throwing only 50 pitches due to a 1:04 rain delay after he retired the side in the fifth inning. Duane Underwood Jr. came in relief in the sixth, firing a perfect frame in the Pirates’ bid to become the first team with a combined perfect game, but he allowed a leadoff double in the seventh to Dylan Carlson.

The win was barely in question given the way the Pirates’ offense backed him. Kranick batted in the first inning before he took the mound, making him the second starting pitcher in franchise history to hit before he threw the first pitch of his MLB debut. Paul Maholm did the same on Aug. 30, 2005, in Milwaukee.

Kranick was not afraid to throw the ball over the plate and draw contact. Eight of his 15 outs came in the air, while he struck out three batters -- two coming on a four-seamer that averaged 94.1 mph and one coming on a slider with cutter-like action.

But to get the results he did on Sunday, Kranick had to rethink and redesign his entire pitching mechanics. Then 22 and still young in his development, he came home from Spring Training in 2020 feeling pain in his right arm, and Kranick hadn’t even pitched in a Grapefruit League game.

“Going home from Spring Training and having a sore arm before even playing any games, I looked in the mirror and said change needs to be done,” Kranick said.

So during the shutdown before the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Kranick returned home to Jessup, Pa., just outside of Scranton. He worked with Victor Black, at that time the Pirates’ pitching coach for the then Low-A Bradenton Marauders, from long distance.

Over Zoom, they got to work. Black watched nearly every bullpen as Kranick shortened up his pitching motion, which helped him command the ball better, while also likely decreasing the risk of injury in the long term. Kranick’s brother, John, who worked in the Pirates’ system, became well-versed with Rapsodo and high-speed cameras through his time with the organization.

“They took a risk,” said Max’s father, also named John, “because it took probably three to four months to get that right, but as he kind of kept on progressing, it got better and better and better. Sharper break. Better tilt. Better spin. Velo definitely spiked.

“If it wasn’t for that, quite honestly, we probably wouldn’t be talking right now.”

The Pirates took notice of that hard work. Kranick began the season at Double-A, then moved up to Triple-A after three starts. Then, with only four starts for Indianapolis, he got the call every player dreams of, and the callup fits cleanly in the Pirates’ focus on developing the player and giving opportunities to those who give it their all and make the necessary strides.

“We have to have situations where, when guys do things correctly and they make significant adjustments, they’re going to be rewarded with situations,” manager Derek Shelton said, “and today is one of those opportunities.”

Kranick attributed a lot of his success to the 18 people, including his parents, brothers, extended family and friends, who made the trip to Busch Stadium to see him make his debut. The night before he took the mound, he met up with his parents at their hotel in St. Louis, and his father sensed that Kranick was ready for the opportunity he’d worked his whole life to accomplish.

“He’s in a good spot,” John said on Saturday night. “I’d be very surprised if he’s like a deer in the headlights tomorrow.”

Instead, Kranick made the Cardinals look like deer in headlights, as he recorded the first debut start in MLB history that ended with five or more perfect innings since 1893, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

The right-hander said he was so dead-set focused on each pitch, he didn’t even realize he was making history. He was just trying to execute the pitch at hand to make the most of the situation at hand, one he created through a major risk that reaped an incredible benefit from the start.

“It kind of dawned on me once I got to the clubhouse,” Kranick said. “I feel like every pitch I threw was the biggest pitch of my life. I was tunneled in. It was a crazy feeling, an unbelievable feeling. I’ll remember this day forever.”