It’s the summer of 1997, and Brendan McKay just won’t get back in the car.
The McKays are parked at a Pizza Hut somewhere in the Carolinas, on their way to Myrtle Beach, S.C., from their hometown of Darlington, Pa., for a little family vacation. Brendan is the youngest of three—much younger, in fact. He was born in ’95. His two older sisters, Jennifer and Heather, are well into their teenage years at this point; they’ve played softball for years, and they’ve clearly rubbed off on their younger brother.
They still tease Brendan about this story, even now.
The McKays just made a quick stop for food and gas and are trying to get back on the road. But Brendan simply refuses to return to the backseat. He wants to take some swings—and he wants to take them now. So, Bruce McKay, Brendan’s father, takes one of those jumbo whiffle ball bats and a few balls out of the car.
“We ended up playing baseball in the parking lot at Pizza Hut,” Bruce said, laughing. “He probably doesn’t remember that, but his sisters remind him of that all the time. ‘Remember the time we had to stop for you because you couldn’t stay in the car anymore?’”
All these years later, it’s still impossible to keep a bat out of Brendan McKay’s hands.
McKay perhaps is most known for what he can do on the mound. Before opting to go to Louisville, he was drafted in the 34th round by the Padres in 2014 as a pitcher, and this season with the Cardinals, the lefthander led the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 1.77 ERA. He went 9-3, striking out 117 batters and walking 34 in 96 2/3 innings. He earned four saves out of the bullpen before evolving into Louisville’s Saturday stopper.
But McKay also made quite the impact at the plate, hitting .308/.418/.431 with four home runs and 34 RBIs in the middle of Louisville’s order. By the end of the season, he was Louisville’s everyday cleanup hitter, DHing when he made his Saturday starts and starting at first base on other days.
McKay says he has no preference between hitting and pitching, but Bruce knows his son, and he knows—just like when he was a little boy—he has an inherent need to have a ball or bat or glove in his hands.
“I think it would drive him crazy if he just pitched every Saturday and he didn’t get to do anything in between,” Bruce said. “He’s used to playing all the time—either pitching or playing a position and hitting. I know that would drive him crazy. He’d be in the dugout going nuts. ‘Coach, let me hit, let me hit.’”
The Cardinals let him hit, and they let him pitch, and surely, they’re glad they did. McKay became an essential cog on both sides of the ball for Louisville and—most impressively—did so in his freshman season.
For those reasons, McKay is Baseball America’s College Freshman of the Year.
Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell is familiar with the storyline—the lefthander who closed then started, who played first base and won accolades for both.
That was Stephen Head, back in 2003, when McDonnell was an assistant at Mississippi. Head won All-American honors and was the SEC freshman of the year in 2003 as a two-way player. A second-round pick of the Indians in 2005 who got as far as Triple-A in 2009, Head is now a volunteer assistant at Ole Miss and got to see McKay in early March when the Cardinals split two games in Oxford.
“I talked to Stephen after the game, and Stephen put his arm around me and said, ‘Coach, McKay’s a better pitcher than I ever was,” McDonnell said. “Stephen pitched with so much heart, but when they saw McKay, he bumped 94 (mph) and sat 92, and they were like, ‘good Lord.’”
McKay’s prowess on the mound is nothing new; he came to Louisville already with a considerable amount of polish. In his senior year at Blackhawk High in Beaver Falls, Pa., he threw 72 1/3 scoreless innings in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, the second-longest ever in high school baseball.
He has the fastball, which sits 88-92 mph with late run and played up out of the bullpen, but it’s a curveball that truly sets McKay apart. Similar to Louisiana State freshman righthander Alex Lange—who had a stellar first season in his own right—McKay throws a hard, biting spike curve that sits in the high 70’s to low 80’s. McKay can catch the corners with it or bury it below the zone, varying its shape and velocity as he sees fit.
It’s a pitch he learned at a young age and has all but mastered at age 19.
“I picked that up when I was 13; I saw the grip from a buddy that played on my travel team,” McKay said. “I’m using the same one. It’s just about trying to find the arm slot and different angles and speed you need to throw it at to see where it’ll break and how hard the break will be at certain speeds.”
McKay didn’t have a personal pitching coach growing up. Bruce said Brendan learned from watching other kids, from sheer practice. He said coaches and scouts always ask if he taught McKay his spike curve.
“Nope,” Bruce said, laughing. “I can’t do it. I can’t throw it like that.”
Bruce coached Brendan through instructional league, up until he was 13, and he knew that when the time came for Brendan to go the next level—either college or professional ball—he’d benefit from an experienced pitching coach.
Enter Roger Williams, Louisville’s pitching coach and a longtime college pitching guru. His presence on the Cardinals coaching staff was a large reason why Brendan chose to attend Louisville, but Williams hasn’t had to do much tweaking, just some lower-body work with McKay’s delivery—and the development of McKay’s fringy changeup will be Williams’ next project this fall.
“I think Brendan always had the ability to command his stuff, and he had the ability to spin the breaking ball at a high level,” Williams said. “I’d say it was just some more tweaking some things here and there. The foundation for what he does as a pitcher I think is still there from what he did in the past as a pitcher.”
And as a hitter?
When the Cardinals were recruiting McKay, Bruce said coaches would tell him they weren’t sure what to do with him. Start him at first base? Start him on the mound? Both? Williams said he can’t remember any two-way player having as much success as McKay has had on both sides of the ball, especially as a freshman.
All parties, including Brendan himself, acknowledge pitching is likely McKay’s ticket to the major leagues. But McKay more than handled his own with the bat this spring and showed some increased lefthanded pop as the season wore on, finishing one double shy of the team lead with 14. He wasn’t an easy out. It wasn’t a gimmick. McKay was legitimately one of Louisville’s steadiest hitters.
Could McKay’s hitting tool also potentially translate to professional baseball?
“You can’t underestimate the growth of a position player from 18 to 21. The numbers jump, and the power jumps,” McDonnell said. “The thing that has been impressive is that for a power hitter, he has a real professional approach. There’s a lot of quality at-bats strung together.”
The 2015 Louisville baseball team was a team full of football players, fiery guys, guys such as senior Zach Lucas, who was a quarterback in high school and also quarterbacked in the dugout, guys like Sutton Whiting, who could take a fastball to the face, break his nose and miss hardly any time at all.
McDonnell likes to recruit those kinds of players, he likes that football mindset.
“But you need a couple of McKays on your team to even it out,” McDonnell said in the midst of Louisville’s super regional against Cal State Fullerton. “I have coaches tease me, ‘Does he have a pulse?’ He’s got a great demeanor for baseball.”
While rotation-mate Josh Rogers—an 11th-round pick by the Yankees—was screaming and throwing his hands up to pump up fans during his super regional start, McKay was just the opposite. He’s about as even-keeled as they come—”stoned-faced,” as Williams calls him.
On the eve of his super regional elimination game start against the Titans, McKay seemed unfazed by the pressure, talking at an even, steady pace, as if he’d faced that scenario thousands of times before.
“I don’t mind it,” he said. “You have to face pressure sometime in your life. Whether it’s in sports or aspects of life, you are going to have to deal with it. Why not now?”
The next day, McKay threw a seven-inning, two-run outing, striking out nine and leading the Cardinals to a win. That came a day after he went 3-for-5 and hit a game-tying solo home run in Louisville’s extra-inning loss to Fullerton.
The Cardinals often called on McKay in pivotal moments, and more often than not, he’d deliver. There was one game against Miami on March 8 when McKay threw two shutout innings out of the bullpen, then made himself the winner with the walk-off base hit. McKay said whether on the mound, at the plate or in a classroom taking a test, he’s always been able to rein in his emotions.
“I think it’s just from how I grew up playing the game,” McKay said “Just not worrying about stuff, trying to just play the game you know how to play.”
Bruce remembers Brendan being called into pitch from the outfield, as a teenager in the Elite 32 World Series in Disney. The bases were loaded, two outs, Brendan’s team up by one run. Brendan had only eight warm-up pitches to get loose, worked the kid at the plate to a 3-2 count, and then Brendan’s coach called for a curveball.
“What kind of pressure is that?,” Bruce said. “They were in that situation so many times playing travel baseball where they’d call him in to pitch. He never really got too rattled or anything, even when he was younger.
“He might be (rattled) inside, but he doesn’t show that on the outside . . . I don’t know if he got that from me or what.”
Wherever he got it, McKay has had it for quite some time. Even as a freshman, he’s been called on time and time again, counted on to produce in not one but two significant roles. He’s being doing it his whole life.
For McKay, it’s as easy as taking swings in a Pizza Hut parking lot.