PHOENIX—It's a good thing that the McKinney family hadn't undertaken major house cleaning last offseason at their home in the Dallas area. Prior to heading out for his assignment to the Arizona Fall League, Scottsdale Scorpion outfielder Billy McKinney was told by Yankees officials to get some experience at first base, a position that he hadn't played since his sophomore year of high school. It took some serious digging around the house for the 23-year-old left-handed hitter to find his old first baseman's mitt.
"It was stuffed under some stuff," McKinney said, adding that he's since ordered a new glove to use this fall.
McKinney has played only one game at first base since the start of the AFL season, but is working at the position in pregame drills with Scottsdale manager Jay Bell and other members of the Scorpions coaching staff. It's a big change that McKinney is embracing, knowing that the added versatility can only help his career.
"You've got to be engaged way more," McKinney said comparing first base to his usual corner-outfield spots, "getting the ball more . . . It's a little new scenery, a nice little change of pace. I'm still going to be primarily an outfielder, but adding first base is just something the Yankees wanted to do."
Bell, manager of the Yankees’ high Class A Tampa affiliate during the regular season, concurs that being able to play multiple positions will be a plus for McKinney.
"Every organization is searching for guys who can be super utility players," Bell said. "My objective with him is to help him improve at first base so that he can be that multi-purpose player . . . If he can end up putting himself in position to excel defensively at first base as well as the outfield, his value is going to go way up."
McKinney is certainly no stranger to change, having been involved in two major trades since the Athletics drafted him in the first round in 2013. Just over a year after breaking into pro ball, he was included with Addison Russell and others in a trade to the Chicago Cubs for big league pitcher Jeff Samardzija. Last year McKinney was one of four players, along with 2016 AFL Most Valuable Player Gleyber Torres, traded to the Yankees for closer Aroldis Chapman.
Transitioning to a new organization got less difficult each time it happened.
"The first one I was a little shocked," McKinney said. "It was my first full season, but once I got my feet wet with the Cubs it was pretty easy. The second one was way easier because I knew what to expect. I knew I had to pack it up, know where my assignment was and get there . . . I like to meet new people and venture out, so it was easy."
McKinney's projection as a ballplayer has changed as his body has matured and gotten stronger. A center fielder with a tick above average speed early in his career, McKinney has primarily played on the corners since his second pro season. Now with average speed and a fringy arm McKinney projects better in left field, but prior to 2017 he wasn't showing the pop in his bat to start there. The power finally emerged this season as he combined for 16 home runs, the most he's hit in any season. In fact, his numbers improved after a midseason promotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he posted a .306/.336/.541 slash line with 10 homers in 209 at-bats. He obviously adapted quite well to the better pitching at the Triple-A level.
McKinney couldn't quite put a finger on why his output got better at the higher level, stating that maybe his luck just changed and he had more balls drop. But Bell has a different reason for the improvement, citing Triple-A pitchers throwing more strikes and McKinney taking advantage. He had more home runs (10) than walks (nine), and his 39 walks overall for the season was a career-low.
"For a lot of players, the higher they go the easier it is to hit," Bell said. "If you have the ability, as you go higher the umpiring gets a little bit better, the zones stay a little more consistent . . . I think that's really what helped Billy out. I think he got there with a little more consistent strike zone and he was able to be more selective at the plate."
Like many young hitters, McKinney seeks any extra information that can help him with his approach at the plate, even going to pitching coaches to ask how they approach hitters and what they do in certain situations. He especially recalls how he used to talk to the late Bob Welch, then a pitching instructor, during his time in the Athletics organization.
"I tried learning from him all the time," McKinney said. "I asked him how he'd approach me and what he'd throw."
McKinney will be Rule 5 eligible this offseason if not added to the Yankees’ 40-man roster. A strong AFL season and the addition of first base to his résumé can only help McKinney's case for a roster spot. But it's not something that's on his mind.
"I just try to stay focused on baseball," McKinney said, "and I just try to do my best every day."
• The fifth annual Bowman Hitting Challenge will be held on Saturday, Oct. 21 beginning at 6:35 pm MST at Sloan Park in Mesa. One slugger from each major league organization will have two minutes in a batting-practice setting to hit balls at targets for different point values, followed by one last swing at a "Bowman Bonus Ball" placed on a hitting tee at home plate.
• Six Peoria Javelinas pitchers nearly combined for a no-hitter on Saturday in a home game against the Salt River Rafters, holding the visitors hitless until Rodrigo Vigil (Marlins) grounded a double down the left-field line with one out in the ninth inning. Salt River broke through with a run one batter later, avoiding a shutout in the 12-1 Peoria victory. T.J. Zeuch, Toronto's first round pick in 2016, pitched three perfect innings in his initial AFL start, using his four-pitch mix with a 91-95 mph fastball, mid-80s changeup, low-80s slider and curveball in the 70s.