Brendan McKay was the fourth overall pick for the Tampa Bay Rays out of the University of Louisville. McKay was a three time winner of the John Olerud Award, given to the best two way player in college baseball, and since his selection the Rays have been committed to trying to see if he could make it work in professional baseball.
Being good enough to be a major leaguer on one side of the ball is extremely difficult, much less while splitting your time between pitching and hitting, but Shohei Ohtani showed what the upside could look like if a player can be very good on both sides of the ball, and McKay will still be allowed to attempt the same in 2019.
Setting up a schedule was the first obstacle and the Rays went with one day pitching, two days at designated hitter, two days at first base, and one day off every six days.
The results on the mound were everything you could hope for in a pitcher that could be in the majors quickly. Split between three levels, culminating in the Florida State League (A+), McKay threw 78.1 innings with a 2.41 ERA and 1.94 FIP while striking out 34.5% and limiting walks to 4.5%. The only hiccup was a missed month due to a pulled oblique, a possible harbinger for the consequences of hitting while pitching.
Rays High-A LHP Brendan McKay has been gaining momentum as a primary pitcher this year. Mostly 93-95 today, touched 96. Four pitch mix, all above average & command projects for above. Also has plus lefty raw power & at least an average hit tool, some say plus.— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) August 26, 2018
TL;DR he’s good. pic.twitter.com/pMdEXqAt36
McKay isn’t an overpowering pitcher, but he throws a solid four pitch mix with an above average fastball, changeup, and cutter with a plus curveball being his best pitch. Command allows everything to play up and be a relatively safe bet to be a middle of the rotation starting pitcher.
The results with the bat weren’t as exciting: McKay hit .214/.368/.359 over 242 plate appearances, and posted a 18.2% walk rate and 21.5% strikeout rate, so not all was bad at the plate. The strong walk rate allowed him to get on base at a good clip, but his approach led to excessive passiveness at times. The Trackman data also suggests his .257 BABIP was more misfortune than bad contact. A .146 ISO is cause for concern for somebody that will be limited to 1B/DH.
There is no consensus on the bat, even though more teams liked his upside as a hitter than on the mound at the time of the draft. Kiley McDaniels and Eric Longenhagen at FanGraphs are the highest on McKay ranking him 12th in their recent top 100 and think he could be a 60 hit, 60 power bat, but if he were only a pitcher the road to the majors would be much quicker.
What is the plan for 2019?
According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, McKay’s schedule will change a little from last year by limiting McKay to designated hitter when he isn’t on the mound. The rotation will be a six day rotation of one on the mound, four at designated hitter, and one day off.
The most notable part of the plan is McKay will still be limited to throwing every seventh day instead of the more traditional sixth day as a starting pitcher.
With the arm ahead of the bat the Rays need to make sure his development there doesn’t plateau. The goal should be to see him reach 140-150 innings putting him on track to make an impact in the majors in 2020 with an innings limit around 170-180 innings.
This is likely the make or break for year for McKay at the plate. He has the skills to be a productive hitter one day, but for a team looking to compete there will be pressure to use those innings at the major league level sooner rather than later.
It’s possible that McKay starts the season in Port Charlotte (A+) to allow the bat to catch up, but an assignment to Montgomery (AA) shouldn’t be surprising. If he does start in Port Charlotte it shouldn’t be for long.