Black MLB Players #12: Triston McKenzie
Background + Path to the MLB
Triston McKenzie is a 23-year-old starting pitcher for the Cleveland Guardians from Royal Palm Beach, Florida. He is 6'5'’, 165 pounds, and throws right-handed. His love for the game of baseball was nurtured by his father, an immigrant from Jamaica with a similarly deep love for the game. McKenzie’s father helped him study film, drove him to practices and games, in addition to getting him special training after the possibility of going to the pros grew more and more tangible.
McKenzie was a highly rated prospect coming out of high school, seen as a top 50 talent in the 2015 MLB Draft Class. The combination of being one of the youngest eligible high school pitchers in his class at 17 years old, a projectable physical frame at 6'5'’ with an enormous wingspan, and an arsenal capable of competing against major league hitters gave him massive appeal from MLB scouts.
McKenzie had a commitment and full scholarship to Vanderbilt University, one of the best college baseball programs in the NCAA currently and throughout the history of organized college baseball. McKenzie’s family retains close ties with Vanderbilt University’s baseball program as Triston McKenzie’s younger brother TJ is an infielder on the college baseball team.
The elder McKenzie brother was drafted in the Competitive Balance A round of the 2015 MLB Draft with the 42nd overall pick by the Cleveland Guardians on June 8th, 2015. He forewent his commitment to Vanderbilt University and signed with Cleveland on June 30th, 2015. McKenzie received a $2,302,500 signing bonus, almost a million dollars over slot value, and the largest bonus given to a right-handed high school pitcher in the 2015 MLB Draft.
Triston McKenzie spent four seasons in the minor leagues and was between 3–4 years younger than the average age of his competition at every level he competed in. This is important because he performed well throughout his minor league career, and at times dominated the hitters he faced. He was deemed a top 100 prospect in baseball by creditable sources and individuals throughout his minor league career due to his performance in the minors, and scouts viewed him favorably as well. In his first full pro season in 2016, he dominated college-age hitters at Low-A Mahoning Valley and at the A-Ball affiliate in Lake County at the age of 18. In 2017, he won the Pitcher of the Year Award in the Carolina League(A+/High-A ball) for the Lynchburg Hillcats at 19 years old. He also led all minor league pitchers in strikeouts with 186 for the 2017 MiLB season.
Due to his thin frame, there are concerns with whether he would have the durability to be an effective starter and be available to take his turn in a starting rotation every five days. In 2018, he reached Double-A ball at the age of twenty, flying through the minors at a pace that is uncommon for starting pitchers drafted out of high school. He missed the first half of the season with a forearm strain, but started 16 games in the second half and put up a 2.68 ERA. A minor league succeeding in Double-A is a big deal, as it is a common perspective with scouts, baseball writers, etc. that the gap in talent level between High-A and Double-A is the largest between all the levels. In 2019, McKenzie suffered two muscle strains(lat and pectoral muscles) at different stages of the year, and he did not throw a single inning. In 2020, during the shortened 60 game season, Triston McKenzie got his opportunity to pitch at the MLB level. He put up a 3.24 ERA in 8 appearances(6 starts), 11 strikeouts and 2 walks per nine innings, and a 0.900 WHIP(Walks + Hits per Innings Pitched) in 33 and 1/3rd innings pitched at the MLB level.
Triston McKenzie throws four pitches: fastball(four-seamer/two-seamer), slider, curveball(2–7), and a changeup. He pitches right-handed from a traditional 3/4ths arm slot as seen in the GIF below:
McKenzie has plus command and can throw all of his pitches for strikes, averaging 2.7 walks per nine in his five professional seasons so far. He has clean and consistent mechanics for someone that is 6'5'’ with long arms and legs and creates deception with his delivery by hiding the ball as long as he possibly can before throwing. His long arms give him a great extension on his fastball. When I reference extension, I am talking about the fact that the release point of his fastball is closer to the plate & the hitter, which creates a higher perceived velocity at the plate and deception because the release point is different compared to what hitters are used to seeing.
McKenzie sits 90–97 with his fastball and throws it a little over half the time(53%). It is deemed a plus pitch because of the aforementioned deception McKenzie has in his delivery, and the life/carry it has in combination with the extension he has because of his long arms. Here’s another look at another one of his fastballs, so you all can see what I’m talking about:
Triston McKenzie’s best pitch is his curveball, despite its low spin. It plays up because of its movement, in combination with McKenzie’s ability to throw it for strikes and tunnel it with his fastball to make hitters swing and miss at offerings that fall out of the zone. It sits around 80 mph, and he throws it 16.5% of the time.
Throughout Triston McKenzie’s pro career he has struggled to develop a third pitch, which is needed to succeed as a major league starting pitcher. His changeup flashes above average, but is very inconsistent and he struggles to locate it. In the last year or so, he added a slider to his repertoire. Although it is a new pitch and at times he struggles to be competitive with it, it flashes above average as well. McKenzie throws his slider 20% of the time and throws his changeup 10% of the time.
Triston McKenzie’s ceiling is that of an upper-tier third starter or a lower-tier second starter in a five-man rotation in my opinion. If he can be more consistent with his slider and changeup command, along with their shape/movement to in order to complement his fastball and curveball he will be successful. He has plus command, an above-average baseball IQ, the ability to mix his pitches, and a history of performing as a professional starting pitcher. McKenzie works hard and is lauded throughout the Guardians organization as a great person on and off the diamond. Developing physically and staying in game shape is key, and although he is 23 and it seems that he is done developing physically, there is still a chance for him to gain muscle. Staying healthy and in good condition is key for Triston McKenzie to be a full-time starting pitcher for the Cleveland Guardians.