Three starts in, McKenzie hasn't found his stride

April 14th, 2024

CLEVELAND -- knows it. His coaches know it. We all know it. That’s why he was straight to the point when the media gathered around his locker after the Guardians were swept by the Yankees in a doubleheader Saturday at Progressive Field.

“I don’t want to make small talk,” McKenzie said. “Let’s get to the hard-hitting stuff, please.”

This wasn’t out of anger or frustration. He wasn’t being snippy. He was simply acknowledging that he knew what questions were coming his way. He had just given up six runs (five earned) on four hits with six walks in just four innings in the Guardians’ 8-2 loss in the nightcap. The team had already dropped the matinee, 3-2.

“I felt like I didn’t command the zone early,” McKenzie said. “I feel like I wasn’t getting ahead of a lot of guys. But, I mean, that’s been the case for the past three starts.”

Let’s start there.

McKenzie has faced 62 hitters this season, including 22 on Saturday. Of those, 28 have started in a 1-0 count (45.2%). So nearly half the time this season, McKenzie has started an at-bat in a hitter’s count. In his last full season in 2022, that number was at 37.5%. Obviously, this is a small sample size, but it’s a starting point for what’s gone wrong for McKenzie this season.

Command has been McKenzie’s biggest hurdle. He walked two batters in his first start, four in his second and six against the Yankees, which tied his career high.

“He struggled with his command,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said after the loss. “Big misses. It was really uncharacteristic of him. Just got himself into bad counts and wasn’t able to put hitters away. And they took advantage.”

Each time McKenzie toes the rubber, it’s easy to hope for signs that he’s trending back in the right direction. But as he released the first pitch of the game on Saturday, the scoreboard flashed “89 mph, four-seam fastball.” Now, McKenzie has never been the overpowering type of hurler. Vogt talked this spring about how he remembers facing McKenzie as a hitter and focused on how McKenzie’s height and extension added so much life to his heater. He didn’t need to be breaking the radar gun, but still, he always averaged slightly faster than 92 mph. Now, his average is closer to 90 mph.

“I don’t know if we’re concerned quite yet,” Vogt said. “He’ll flash 92 [mph] up there quite often. I think for him, it’s just finding the consistency in his delivery, finding consistency in his release point. Again, it’s not necessarily every pitch -- it’s the big misses that [it’s like], ‘Where’s that coming from?’”

With his velocity down two ticks and the frequency of him falling behind in counts, McKenzie has seen a drastic drop-off in strikeouts.

“Part of it,” Vogt said, “could be the inconsistency just with his delivery or inconsistency of executing pitches -- because we do see some sharp sliders, and we do see some good life on the fastball. It’s just getting that consistency back will lead to more punchouts.”

All of this, of course, becomes more concerning knowing that McKenzie had been out for all but four starts last season with a shoulder and elbow injury. The Guardians were hoping that he could bounce back and pick up right where he left off in ‘22. They need his leadership (and dominance) even more now that ace Shane Bieber will be out for the season. The rest of the rotation has yet to prove it can eat up innings. Cleveland is searching for someone to step up and help fill the massive void that Bieber is leaving.

“Trying to figure out how I can kind of smooth some of that out,” McKenzie said. “Make some of the long innings a little shorter, make some of those long at-bats a little shorter, get some quick outs, get the guys involved in the game and just kind of get a little past four or five innings.”

McKenzie knew there was no need to beat around the bush after his outing. He wanted to address the elephant in the room, but even with all of these hurdles in front of him, he was also quick to lean on optimism.

“Just trying to figure out where I move from here,” McKenzie said. “But all in all, I felt good.”