2017 College Player of the Year: Brendan McKay Excels On All Fronts

Brendan McKay ‘just keeps getting better and better’ after three seasons spent starring on the mound and at the plate for Louisville. (Photo by Brian Westerholt)

SEE ALSO: Two-Way College Stars

LOUISVILLE—Even after Brendan McKay dyed his hair blond along with his teammates before Louisville began the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, nobody would confuse the lefthander/first baseman with Robert Redford. But Redford’s Hollywood looks are about the only thing separating McKay from becoming “The Natural.”

Baseball appears to come so easily to McKay. In his senior year at his Pittsburgh-area high school, he had a 72-inning scoreless streak. At Louisville, he has been a staple of the rotation and the middle of the lineup throughout his career.
He spent the last two summers playing for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. He was Freshman of the Year in 2015 and has earned first-team All-America honors for three straight seasons. He’s just the third player to do so in Baseball America’s 37-year history, joining Texas’ Greg Swindell (1984-86) and Oklahoma State’s Robin Ventura (1986-88).

McKay’s junior season has been his best yet. Entering super regionals, he went 9-3, 2.31 with 131 strikeouts in 97.1 innings on the mound and hit .357/.474/.688 with 17 home runs. He helped lead Louisville to the ACC regular season title and the No. 7 national seed. For his sensational season and two-way talent, McKay is the 2017 College Player of the Year.

McKay has considerable physical talents, but his mental capabilities play a big role in his success as well. He shoulders a hefty burden for the Cardinals but never allows the pressure to overwhelm him.

“Baseball’s hard as it is, just being a regular player,” McKay said. “If you put any extra pressure on yourself, it can take even more of a toll. That’s when you play your best, when you’re free and you’ve got a clear mind and you’re just doing your thing out there.”

That attitude has served McKay well. He was a superstar at Blackhawk High in Beaver Falls, Pa.. He twice was named Gatorade player of the year in Pennsylvania and was drafted in the 34th round by the Padres.

While Louisville had high hopes for McKay, he first had to prove he belonged in the mix on the mound and in the lineup. He quickly did both. He opened his freshman year in the bullpen and earned four saves before moving into the rotation about a month into the season. He became a regular in the lineup in the first few weeks of the spring.

McKay went 9-3, 1.77 in 96.2 innings. At the plate, he hit .308/.418/.431 with four home runs. Just a year after Kentucky’s A.J. Reed won the College Player of the Year award, college baseball had found its next two-way superstar.

“If you put Brendan the pitcher on one side and Brendan the hitter on the other side, they could almost have their own competition to see who’s better at that craft,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said.

McKay only improved as a sophomore and junior. This year, he finally tapped into his raw power, slugging 17 home runs after hitting 10 in his first two seasons combined. On the mound, he worked with pitching coach Roger Williams to add a cutter, giving him another weapon.

In subtler ways, McKay has improved in nearly every aspect of the game. Indiana coach Chris Lemonis was Louisville’s recruiting coordinator when McKay committed. He said McKay has surpassed expectations.

“He just keeps getting better and better,” Lemonis said. “It’s scary. I’ve never seen the kid have a bad week.”

McKay has always been a two-way player, but pitching was long considered his forte and likely long-term position. His development at the plate this spring, however, led evaluators to seriously consider drafting him as a hitter. If pitching wins out, it will be the allure of a lefthander throwing 91-93 mph with a hammer curveball and solid changeup. Many also believe his stuff will play up a tick when he stops hitting every day.

Managing McKay’s workload has not been easy, but after three seasons of splitting his time, he said he has found a good routine. He does everything his position player teammates do, with the small concession of serving as the DH the day after he pitches. He has also condensed his post-start weight lifting into one session to minimize his soreness.

McKay does not want anything special, or to be treated differently from his teammates. In his start against Oklahoma in regionals, he tied former teammate Kyle Funkhouser for the most career strikeouts in program history with 376.

McDonnell is not shy about declaring McKay the best player in program history. He is a transformative talent and has played a critical role in Louisville winning the ACC title in two of its first three years in the league.

Winning drives McKay more than any individual records, awards or his draft position.

“He just wants to win,” McDonnell said. “He loves to compete. We’re so blessed to have him.”

1981 Mike Sodders 3b Arizona State
1982 Jeff Ledbetter of/lhp Florida State
1983 Dave Magadan 1b Alabama
1984 Oddibe McDowell of Arizona State
1985 Pete Incaviglia of Oklahoma State
1986 Casey Close of Michigan
1987 Robin Ventura 3b Oklahoma State
1988 John Olerud 1b/lhp Washington State
1989 Ben McDonald rhp Louisiana State
1990 Mike Kelly of Arizona State
1991 David McCarthy 1b Stanford
1992 Phil Nevin 3b Cal State Fullerton
1993 Brooks Kieschnick dh/rhp Texas
1994 Jason Varitek c Georgia Tech
1995 Todd Helton 1b/lhp Tennessee
1996 Kris Benson rhp Clemson
1997 J.D. Drew of Florida State
1998 Jeff Austin rhp Stanford
1999 Jason Jennings rhp Baylor
2000 Mark Teixeira 3b Georgia Tech
2001 Mark Prior rhp Southern California
2002 Khalil Greene ss Clemson
2003 Rickie Weeks 2b Southern
2004 Jered Weaver rhp Long Beach State
2005 Alex Gordon 3b Nebraska
2006 Andrew Miller lhp North Carolina
2007 David Price lhp Vanderbilt
2008 Buster Posey c/rhp Florida State
2009 Stephen Strasburg rhp San Diego State
2010 Anthony Rendon 3b Rice
2011 Trevor Bauer rhp UCLA
2012 Mike Zunino c Florida
2013 Kris Bryant 3b San Diego
2014 A.J. Reed 1b/lhp Kentucky
2015 Andrew Benintendi of Arkansas
2016 Kyle Lewis of Mercer

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