Triston McKenzie Has Arrived

Triston McKenzie cards: 2017 Bowman Chrome green autograph and 2017 Topps Heritage Minor League blue autograph. Card photo via Scott Greene.

The Triston McKenzie era has begun in Cleveland, and there may be no looking back.

McKenzie made his first competitive start in over two years Saturday, and first impressions show he lives up to the hype. The Indians’ #7 prospect struck out 10 Detroit Tigers hitters while allowing only two hits over six innings. McKenzie’s lone mistake came when he gave up a solo home run on a high changeup to Willi Castro.

McKenzie demonstrated the ability to command the zone both low and high. His fastball sat at 95 mph all night, and hitters were consistently fooled by its apparent rising action when thrown up in the zone. He kept hitters off balance primarily with his curveball and mixed in the occasional changeup and slider as well. All of this resulted in 70% of his 80 pitches going for strikes, including 17 swings and misses.

McKenzie’s injury struggles have been well-documented over the past two years. His last start came in 2018 while pitching for the AA Akron Rubberducks. His 2018 came to an end as a result of a forearm strain. Fortunately, it did not result in Tommy John Surgery. McKenzie then missed 2019 with several back and chest muscle injuries. He recovered in the offseason and was expected to see time in AAA Columbus this season.

Despite the challenges 2020 has presented to professional baseball players everywhere, it may have presented McKenzie with the perfect opportunity to stick in Cleveland while allowing the Indians to limit McKenzie’s innings through the 2021 season.

The top three pitchers in the Indians’ rotation are set: Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco and Aaron Civale have earned their job security. The fourth and fifth spots are now in question with the demotions of Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac and the struggles of spot starter Adam Plutko.

I expect the Indians to utilize McKenzie as a fifth starter, similar to how they worked Shane Bieber into the rotation in 2018. Cleveland used Bieber as a fifth starter for the first two months of 2018. With the team’s schedule requiring only four starters for most of April and May, Bieber’s competitive innings were limited early in the season. This allowed the Indians to work Bieber into a standard starter’s routine as they moved into the summer months while continuing his development in Cleveland early in the season. Bieber’s success as a pro indicates the effectiveness of this strategy.

There’s no question McKenzie will find his way to the front of the rotation with Bieber before long. For the rest of 2020 and early 2021, McKenzie will likely fill the fifth starter role. As of this writing, Indians’ GM Chris Antonetti has announced that McKenzie will start another game for Cleveland in the coming weeks. This will allow the Indians to limit his innings while continuing his development with the Major League staff. Continued development of his control and above average secondary offerings will push McKenzie to the top of the rotation as early as next year.

If McKenzie can stay healthy, the sky’s the limit. He’s already proven he has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. With continued health, he’ll soon be another leader at the front of the Indians’ rotation.

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