McKenzie delivered a dominant start for high Class A Lynchburg on Tuesday in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Carolina (Brewers), throwing five innings without allowing an earned run and striking out eight to earn the win in the Hillcats’ 7-1 victory.
The 19-year-old righthander flashed a fastball up to 94 mph, a devastating curveball that one evaluator in attendance graded future plus, and commanded his stuff well enough to throw 55 of his 84 pitches for strikes.
“Everything we’ve asked him he’s done,” Lynchburg pitching coach Rigo Beltran said. “He’s always prepared mentally. Physically we’re hoping he’s going to get a little stronger as he gets older, but he’s in a good spot. At 19 years old, competing at this level and getting people out and being successful, it’s fun to watch.”
The aforementioned desire to get McKenzie physically stronger has long been a goal with him. McKenzie, the No. 42 overall pick in 2015, stands a rail-thin 6-foot-5, 165 pounds, and adding strength in order to hold his velocity deeper into games is one of his main goals this season.
In that regard, he and the Indians have an all-encompassing plan.
“Strength and conditionin-wise it’s an everyday thing,” McKenzie said. “There are little things I’m working on. Calorie intake, working out, different little things on a daily basis I do. There’s no specific amount of calories. It’s just ‘Whenever you can find extra calories and put them in, get them in there.’”
McKenzie showed some early returns on that goal. He dropped to 87-89 mph near the end of his outing, but reached back to find 91 on his final pitch of the night for a strikeout.
Even with diminished velocity, McKenzie still had the guile to strike out the side in his fifth and final inning, including getting Brewers No. 4 prospect Corey Ray swinging.
“A lot of it is just kind of reading the hitters and trusting my catcher and trusting my coach,” McKenzie said. “Understanding what guys’ tendencies are and learning from earlier at-bats. If I got a swing and miss on a fastball or curveball or changeup, it’s just about understanding how the hitter is thinking, especially later in the game when my velo is down a bit.”
McKenzie worked his fastball and curveball most of the night, mixing in an 83-84 mph changeup only occasionally. He did lose the handle on a few fastballs, resulting in three wild pitches, and also threw a pickoff attempt away for an error.
But even with those shortcomings, he controlled the tempo and got swings and misses all night against a talented Mudcats lineup that featured three of the Brewers’ top six prospects. He struck out Ray twice, held No. 5 prospect Isan Diaz 0-for-2 with a strikeout, and kept No. 6 prospect Trent Clark 0-for-1 with a weak infield chopper.
“Beyond just the stuff he’s a guy that knows how to pitch,” Beltran said. “He has a feel for pitching, has a good idea of reading swings. He’s a competitor and when he goes out there he likes to win and finds a way to compete. Even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, he finds a way to get people out.”
McKenzie still has room to grow physically and as a pitcher. Adding weight and sharpening his changeup are two areas he and Beltran independently highlighted as areas targeted for improvement.
Considering how dominant McKenzie showed he could be with those progressions still to come, the future appears exceptionally bright for the Indians’ top pitching prospect.
“Right now I’m just going out there on the whole and understanding these hitters are going to be better than the ones we faced before,” McKenzie said. “I come out with a mindset to play hard and compete with everything each time, and it’s done me well.”
NEWS AND NOTES
• Ray went 1-for-6 with a double, a walk and three strikeouts combined in the doubleheader. He struggled swinging and missing on outside pitches and was picked off both teams he reached base. The first time he was picked off came at first base in game one and McKenzie picked him off of second base in game two.
• Diaz went 1-for-6 with a single and two strikeouts and Clark went 1-for-3 with a single and two walks in the doubleheader. Diaz showed nifty glove work and a solid arm at shortstop but Clark let multiple balls drop playing both right field and center field, earning derision from scouts in attendance who criticized his motor and effort.
• Carolina righthander Corbin Burnes, the Brewers No. 24 prospect, started game one and pitched five scoreless innings with three hits allowed, four walks and five strikeouts. He struggled with his fastball command, missing high frequently, but escaped jams by inducing three ground-ball double plays. He primarily relied on a 91-93 mph fastball and 77-80 mph curveball and mixed in an 83-85 mph slider. The 2016 fourth-round pick out of St. Mary’s has a 0.56 ERA in three starts this season.
• Lynchburg shortstop Willi Castro, the Indians No. 15 prospect, went 3-for-4 with two stolen bases in three attempts.
• Lefthander Thomas Pannone pitched 5.2 scoreless innings with one hit allowed, two walks and six strikeouts in game one for Lynchburg. Pannone worked quickly and filled the zone with 88-92 mph fastballs and 75-76 slurvy breaking balls.