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Brendan McKay arrived exactly as advertised

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A look back at Brendan McKay’s pitching debut for the Tampa Bay Rays

MLB: JUN 29 Rangers at Rays Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rays two-way prospect Brendan McKay has arrived, one week before what would have been his biggest spotlight yet at the MLB Futures Game.

Instead, the Rays battled out an 18-inning win in Minnesota that forced one of last weekend’s starting pitchers to throw three innings two days earlier, meaning there was one option for the Rays.

Brendan McKay made his major league debut last Saturday, and took a perfect game into the sixth inning.

Now, instead of appearing in the Futures Game, the future is now for Brendan McKay.

The Debut

If there is key observation to be made it’s that McKay was pretty close to exactly what we expected. The guy matches the reports.

Using a fastball that can ratchet up to 95 mph from the left side, and with major league average secondary stuff, on first glance the top pitching prospect in one of baseball’s best systems is decent but not amazing.

It’s his ability to hit his spots that is.

McKay’s pitchability and command make all of his stuff play up, causing hitters to second guess or swing weakly at the southpaw’s pitches that paint the black or fool just outside the zone.

Throwing (surprisingly) from the extreme third base side of the rubber, McKay’s stuff played up the more he explored his arsenal and the zone as the game went on. Here’s a fastball dismantling Joey Gallo for his first career strikeout:

God bless, that was a ballsy yet effective pitch.

And impressively, with two runners on, once the perfecto bid was lost, here’s McKay throwing a curveball low and inside, getting Delino DeShields completely confused:

That strikeout solidified the quality start for McKay, and gave us enough of a sample size to draw some conclusions on his stuff.

Fastball

As seen in the Gallo (Mc)K, his fastball has decent rise, and can reach mid 90s. That’s probably his best pitch right now, with the Gallo moment being the best example of him throwing it by someone within the zone.

It’s dynamic, it’s got velocity, it’s got rising movement, and he can command it. It’s hard to ask for more.

Here’s another fastball to the same part of the zone, that did something a little bit different, fooling veteran Logan Forsythe into taking a pitch he should have offered at:

Whereas the lefty Gallo was being fooled into swinging under a rising fastball, here Forsythe is letting McKay paint the black. It’s a multi-faceted approach.

McKay doesn’t have to rely solely on rise, up in the zone, to make his fastball work, which means he should be able to ride the pitch in his starts most of the time. Joe Maddon used to say that a well-located fastball is the best pitch in baseball, and being able to command the fastball to all parts of the zone makes it count as several pitches, not just one.

That fastball command, and willingness to use it in different ways will give McKay something to fall back on should any of his secondaries not work right on a given night.

Cutter

Conversely, his cutter in the high 80s is a couple inches distinct from the fastball, but it’s not of the Alex Colome or Diego Castillo quality. McKay’s only walk on the evening was from a cutter that never came into the zone and that Shin-Soo Choo checked the swing on.

In the zone, it looks more like this:

I don’t think he will just pound people for groundballs with this horizontal kind of cutter. McKay will have to pitch off the fastball with it, which means it’s there to balance his arsenal more than anything else.

Indeed, McKay picked up the cutter so lefties wouldn’t get used to seeing his fourseam variety of the fastball, but it’s become something more. Being able to feed the cutter with success to right handed hitters shows that McKay is advanced enough to handle this level of pitching.

Curveball

From what I saw, the curve was 11-5 and pretty average, but for McKay being major league average with a breaking ball is success at this stage of his career.

He has to locate and get good angles on it (as is true for all of his secondaries), and with this sort of curve there is a worry it’ll look flat to certain parts of the zone (McKay threw a handful of them armside that were more playing with fire than throwing it), but if he can do what he did to DeSheilds on the regular, he’ll be just fine.

For fun, here’s another:

Now, what’s interesting is that the curves thrown armside might have been different curves, and may have contributed to why I felt they were being inconsistently thrown. McKay plays with the shape of the pitch based on the situation, as he told David Laurila at FanGraphs:

Laurila: What do you consider your best secondary pitch?

McKay: “I’d say my curveball. Based on the situation, or what kind of hitter is up — for instance, left-handed or right-handed — I’ll change the shape on it. I’ll go more straight up-to-down, like 12-6, or I’ll go more glove side with it.”

This will be something to watch for going forward.

Changeup

McKay threw one changeup out of his 81 pitches on Saturday, and here it is:

It’s a sample of one, but that one was very straight. If that is what all of his changes look like, he will rely on arm speed and velo difference more that movement to make it successful in the short term.

In the long term, well, all pitchers evolve; the ones that stick, anyway.

Concluding Thoughts

There have been rumblings of a Madison Bumgarner comparison for McKay, which seemed like wishful thinking prior to his debut, but now I think that’s not bad.

McKay’s curve has a little bit more depth than Bumgarner’s, and his cutter a little bit less, but the repertoire is in the neighborhood. They each have four average pitches, and Bumgarner is a long-term blueprint of how command and a good plan can play those tools up into an above average printer. One could see McKay evolving into a similar pitcher with time if he wanted to be more of a groundball pitcher, but for now, McKay is already good enough to be pitching at this level.

McKay’s greatest enemy to battle against will not be himself, but his pitch count. Injuries and lengthened days between starts have diminished his overall workload in the minors (despite the recent rocketship rise), and the Rays are likely to commit to a six-day schedule to keep him fresh.

A six day rotation for McKay will likely mean he has to piggy back with a starter a couple times in the season, but if he’s willing to make an appearance behind Snell or Morton every now and then when it’s his day to pitch, all parties should be happy; especially Rays fans.