McKenzie getting over 'pressure to be perfect'

March 12th, 2022

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Guardians starter has always boasted an easygoing, laid-back, fun-loving personality. That hasn’t changed in 2022. The only noticeable difference when he reported to Spring Training on Friday is that he seems to have a sense of belonging that he didn’t necessarily have in ‘21.

McKenzie didn’t need much time in 2020 to leave his team and Cleveland fans dreaming of what he could become. His 10-strikeout debut and his 3.24 season ERA in 33 1/3 frames proved why he was worth the wait despite a handful of injuries he endured in the Minors. There was no doubt at the time that he had pitched his way into the ‘21 rotation.

But the 2021 McKenzie turned out to be different from the ‘20 McKenzie.

In 2020, McKenzie experienced success, but the atmosphere was so similar to his rehab games, considering the ballparks were empty due to COVID-19. And his stint in the big leagues was so short that he hardly had a chance to get comfortable. So when McKenzie returned in ’21, he knew he had made it to the Majors, but he didn’t necessarily feel like he had made it just yet.

“I wouldn't call it daunting,” McKenzie said, when asked what the mental transition from Minors to Majors is like. “But I feel like a lot of times, it’s like you have the ability, you've done everything to get there, but you do hear stories of guys never making it or guys getting to that point and failing, because I feel like you just put so much pressure on yourself to be perfect.”

The pressure McKenzie had on himself was evident. In his first 10 outings, he walked 35 batters in 41 2/3 innings, owning a 6.26 ERA. He was sent to Triple-A Columbus but was called back up shortly after to try to help the big league club when injuries depleted its starting staff. But in his next start, McKenzie lasted just two-thirds of an inning, walking four batters to yield a run.

“I think early on, I struggled a lot with just trying to, like, find my place almost,” McKenzie said. “And I felt like there was a lot of up and down, and I think middle of the year, I was kind of figuring out and telling myself, ‘I'm a big leaguer, these guys respect me, the other team respects me,’ and going out there and kind of proving it to myself.”

The righty was sent back to Columbus. After almost a month with the Clippers, he rediscovered his 2020 groove.

“When I did get sent down, I performed fine in Triple-A, and they're like, ‘So what's the difference?’” McKenzie said. “I think it was more just like how I received the information and how I interpreted it for myself. When I was in the big leagues, I’d take my butterflies as me being nervous. And then the same thing when I was in Triple-A, I was like, ‘Oh, I'm excited to play the game,’ and just kind of changing my frame of mind around my feelings.”

Whatever it was, something clicked. McKenzie tossed seven scoreless frames against the Royals in his first start back in the big leagues and turned on cruise control when the calendar flipped to August. From his Aug. 5 outing through his Sept. 14 start, he owned a 1.76 ERA with 48 strikeouts and just five walks, while holding opponents to a .128 average in 46 innings (seven starts). Of all pitchers who threw at least 40 innings from Aug. 1 through Sept. 15 last year, just three had a lower ERA than McKenzie:

Max Scherzer: 0.88
Julio Urías: 1.44
Adam Wainwright: 1.67
McKenzie: 1.76
Corbin Burnes: 1.76

Toward the end of September, McKenzie’s success rate started to slip just a bit. There was a lot of focus on the number of innings he had thrown because he missed the 2019 season due to injuries, and then he battled more ailments early in ‘20 before the pandemic shortened the regular season.

Maybe he started to run out of gas. Maybe it was purely coincidental. But the biggest takeaway for McKenzie – aside from learning how to rebound from an enormous mental hurdle in the middle of the year – was that he was able to stay healthy for a full season. And that reassurance alone will only help his confidence heading into 2022.

“That’s my second full season that I’ve thrown in professional baseball,” McKenzie said. “Like, I tweeted out, ‘Healthy season.’ It was more just to know that I’ve had some injury trouble in prior years that I could go out there and do it for myself.”