DENVER -- Second baseman Ryan McMahon’s next step could amount to the next leap for the Rockies.
The Rockies’ disappointing 2019 season featured a fair amount of lineup turnover. They introduced first-time, full-season Major League regulars at catcher (Tony Wolters), in the outfield (David Dahl and Raimel Tapia shared time in center and left with veteran Ian Desmond) and, of course, McMahon at second base.
Dahl became an All-Star.
Will McMahon have a 2020 breakout?
He had to break into the lineup first. The left-handed hitting McMahon withstood challenges from Garrett Hampson, Pat Valaika (now with Arizona) and, most seriously, top prospect Brendan Rodgers. General manager Jeff Bridich said the Rockies had what “wasn’t an easy meeting” with McMahon, but stuck with him starting in mid-June. He relaxed and progressed.
“There's offensive growth in there,” Bridich said. “There's definitely more in there in terms of pure production. He's a very good athlete. It ended up being a very solid-to-good season for him -- struggles early on, and he got better as the season went on."
McMahon, 25, showed development both offensively and defensively.
In 141 games over his first full Major League season, McMahon slashed .250/.329/.450, knocked 24 home runs and finished third on the team with 56 walks.
There were some inconsistencies. While his walk rate was high and his 47.7 percent hard-hit rate (minimum 95 mph exit velocity, according to Statcast) was 22nd in the Majors (among hitters with 200 or more batted ball events), he also struck out 160 times in 539 plate appearances. DJ LeMahieu, the longtime star McMahon replaced at second base, finished with a 47.2 percent hard-hit rate with the Yankees.
Defensively, McMahon, drafted as a third baseman and mostly a first baseman during his debut season of 2018, held his own statistically.
McMahon finished with three Defensive Runs Saved at second base, according to Fangraphs. Under Statcast’s new Outs Above Average, which tracks infielders in shifted positions, he ranked in the middle of the pack at his position at minus-2, with range strength toward first base (2 OAA) and back (1 OAA) as opposed to toward the middle (minus-5).
It helped having the middle covered by shortstop Trevor Story, who finished fifth among MLB infielders at any position at 15 OAA. And Bridich noted that McMahon’s range toward the line could allow less-rangy first baseman Daniel Murphy to play closer to the bag.
Interestingly, though, asked his favorite play -- the one he’d love to be his baseball card shot -- it’s “the ball hits my left, where I backhand it and flip it like that … I don’t know why.”
Experience will help all aspects.
Early last season, there was a stretch of 14 games (April 5-May 2), in and around a trip to the injured list with a left elbow sprain, when he drew 10 walks in 62 plate appearances (16.1 percent walk rate). That would lead to an assumption he was destroying balls in the zone. But he struck out 14 times and hit .212 with two homers.
In his final 75 games, his strikeout rate rose (30.6 percent) and his walk rate dropped (10.3 percent), but he batted .252 with power -- 17 home runs, 48 RBIs and a .500 slugging percentage.
Can he maintain the aggression that leads to hard contact while taking his walks and limiting strikeouts? Learning pitchers is an acknowledged development, but McMahon also feels staying in his proper swing could help make the rest easier.
“Sometimes this year my swing feels really short and sometimes it feels really long,” McMahon said in a late-season interview. “I’ve lined up differently without trying to -- it’s just something that happens throughout the season. Just really honing in on the consistency is going to really help me. I had an OK year, but I think I can do a whole lot better if I find a way to lock in and do the things I do well.”
Aggression when even or ahead in the count pays off in hard-hit balls, but the results are much better at Coors Field than on the road -- a story that vexes Rockies hitters, who see big outfield spaces and balls that break less at home. Here’s what Statcast says of his 2019 numbers even or ahead in counts:
• Swing rate: 52.2 percent at home, 52.1 percent on road
• Chase rate: 28.8 percent at home, 27.8 percent on road
• Average exit velocity: 91.5 mph at home, 91.6 mph on road
• Hard-hit rate: 45.7 percent at home, 46.5 percent on road
• Barrel rate: 11.6 percent at home, 6.1 percent on road
• Expected slugging percentage: .519 at home, .426 on road
• Home runs: 14 at home, 5 on road
Defensively, McMahon is similar to LeMahieu -- they possess greater height and reach than typically found at second base. But while LeMahieu was a middle infielder out of college at LSU, McMahon was drafted out of high school (second round, 2013) as a corner infielder and, before a brief injury rehab assignment last year, played just 49 games at second base in the Minors.
“I think I’m starting to get the feel for second base down,” McMahon said. “Before, it was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to go out there, react, see what happens.' Now, I’m getting better at reading people’s swings from that angle. I’m starting to take that next step at second base.”