Jake McKenzie Stands Out For Texas On The Field And In The Classroom
OMAHA, Neb.—The NCAA for years has used the slogan “most of us will go pro in something other than sports” in ads promoting the student-athlete experience. Texas senior first baseman Jake McKenzie is one of those student-athletes. Perhaps even the consummate student-athlete.
McKenzie graduated last month with a 3.95 cumulative GPA and a degree in petroleum engineering. Only a solitary A-minus over the past four years kept him from a perfect 4.0. He earned academic all-American honors after hitting .246/.341/.303 and emerging as the Longhorns’ everyday first baseman. Next month, he will begin work with EOG Resources, one of the largest crude oil and natural gas companies in the country.
Before then, however, McKenzie has the small matter of helping Texas chase a national championship in its first trip to the College World Series since 2014.
Coach David Pierce said it takes a special person to do what McKenzie has done during his college career.
“There’s just not that many kids capable of doing that type of degree and playing at this level,” Pierce said. “It’s just very difficult. It says so much about his day to day and his understanding of how to manage his time and balance his time to be good at both.”
McKenzie didn’t grow up dreaming of being a petroleum engineer. He had expected to go somewhere to play baseball on scholarship until then a chance to walk on for the Longhorns materialized. He had to list his intended major on his application to Texas but wasn’t sure what to put.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was 17, so I asked my dad,” McKenzie said. “At the time, petroleum was one of the harder ones to get in to, so that’s what I applied to.”
McKenzie could have changed his major once he got to Austin, but he found he enjoyed the classes. The program covers four major areas of study: exploration, drilling, recovery and designing reservoirs. McKenzie did two summer internships with EOG, working in drilling and production.
Keeping up with his coursework and playing baseball hasn’t been easy. He said he has come across just one other athlete in his program—former infielder Connor Macalla, who played baseball for two years before leaving the team to concentrate on school. During McKenzie’s first three years of college, he had to balance baseball with a heavy class load, before what he described as a relatively easy senior year.
McKenzie’s schedule required a delicate balance even after the school year finished. He interned the last two summers with EOG, preventing him from playing summer ball. Last year, Texas’ run to a regional final meant that he started his internship a couple weeks after the rest of the interns. The experience he got during his internships was invaluable.
“I was learning more in my internships in six weeks than I would in a whole semester in school,” McKenzie said. “It’s more like you’ve got to get out there and do it.”
On the field, McKenzie has seen his role grow over the course of his career. He’d done a little bit of everything in his first three years, from pitching to playing nearly every defensive position. He this year found a home at first base—an unlikely spot for a 5-foot-10, 170-pound righthander.
Pierce said he knew coming into the year that McKenzie might end up as the Longhorns' everyday first baseman because he was their best defensive option at the position. What he wasn’t as sure about was whether McKenzie would hit enough to stay in the lineup.
McKenzie has found a way to contribute enough to stay in the lineup. The Longhorns are 33-9 when he starts and 9-12 when he doesn’t.
“It worked out where every single time Jake plays, whether he has anything to do with the offensive numbers, he did something defensively to help us win the game,” Pierce said. “So, our record with him in the lineup has been the main reason he’s stayed in there.”
McKenzie hasn’t totally outgrown his role as a utility player, however. In a 13-2 victory in April against Texas-Rio Grande Valley, he played all nine positions. He went 0-for-2 with a walk and a run and got the final two outs of the game on the mound.
Pierce had never used a player at all nine positions in one game but wanted to give McKenzie the chance to do so both as a reward for his work over the last four years and a recognition for his versatility. McKenzie said Pierce had last summer mentioned it as a possibility, but he wasn’t sure that he would get the opportunity to do it.
“For him to let me do that was cool,” McKenzie said. “I really appreciated it a lot that they would honor me in that way.”
In the two years Pierce has been at Texas, he said he’s seen McKenzie grow mentally as a player. He knows McKenzie can be a perfectionist and, as an engineer, often thinks in binary terms.
"That outlook isn’t necessarily compatible with baseball, where failure is so pervasive. As he has learned how to manage that part of the game, he has found more success.”
McKenzie wasn’t one of the blue-chip recruits that Texas so often pulls in. His contributions don’t always show up in the box score. He’s going pro in something other than sports. But for this Texas team, which won the Big 12 Conference for the first time since 2011, he’s played a key role.
“The best thing about it is he (couldn't) care less about stats,” Pierce said. “When you have a guy who is in an everyday role and doesn’t care about those personal things, it also helps the team because they realize its team first and he’s the perfect example.”