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Triston McKenzie had arrived just before his departure

Shoulder fatigue be damned, Triston McKenzie was the breakout star of the second half of 2021.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

In the interest of full disclosure, I had already chosen to profile Triston McKenzie prior to his going down earlier this week with shoulder fatigue. While his status for the season is still in question—unlike Cleveland’s playoff “hopes” that are essentially nil at this point—his season is still very much worth exploring, simply because of just how good he had been in the second half against what was a very brutal start to the year.

McKenzie was first called up to the big club in 2020, to a fairly good bit of fanfare. He ended up making eight appearances, with six starts, pitching to a 3.24 ERA and 3.91 FIP, along with 11.34 K/9 and 2.43 BB/9. The strikeout rate was of particular note, as he K’d opposing hitters at a rate that put him in the 90th percentile, thanks, in part, to a chase rate that put him in the 87th. His whiff rate was in the 68th. He was generally able to avoid hard contact against as well, with a Hard% against of 28.0 percent and an average exit velocity that was in the 87th percentile (86 MPH).

Given Cleveland’s ability to develop starting pitching, there was a sort of assumption that McKenzie could take a step forward and be a key component in a rotation that would guide them to whatever playoff run a team that traded Francisco Lindor was capable of making. Snark aside, McKenzie was, however, unable to replicate that level of success early in 2021.

In the first half of the season, McKenzie’s K/9 sat at 12.41. That’s great. He built on much of what made him so good in 2020. Good stuff, right? Well. Not when you consider the walk rate. In that same stretch of time, McKenzie’s BB/9 came in at 7.30. I pride myself as (stop reading this in Thom Brennaman’s voice) an individual who does not commit typos, and that is not one. That’s 18.9 percent. It probably goes without saying that that figure was easily the highest among starters with at least 40 innings in the first half of the year (a group that includes 151 starters). The only one even remotely close was John Gant (6.68). Everybody else was well under six.

Worse yet, was that McKenzie surrendered hard contact at a 36.5 percent rate in the first half of this year. Of those 151 arms previously mentioned, that’s the 17th highest (and realistically not all that far away from being, like, no. 2 among that entire group; Luke Weaver’s 48.7 is virtually untouchable atop the list).

On the flip side, the K/9 was up there with the league’s elite. McKenzie’s had him sandwiched between Tyler Glasnow and Max Scherzer at the sixth-best strikeout rate among that same group. That’s exactly the kind of company you want to keep

It all boils down to command. You know how you watch an episode of Chopped and the chefs get extremely excited when they utilize the basket ingredients two or three ways? Well, McKenzie’s command issues manifested themselves in enough ways to leave him finding himself bounced at the hands of a rather verbose Alex Guarnaschelli. And while it wasn’t a dismayed Ted Allen sending McKenzie to Columbus, he did find himself optioned on a couple of different occasions in the first half of the year.

But that’s also why they have the Chopped Redemption episodes (look, I’m not sure where the Chopped references came from; it’s not even Tuesday). The reality of it is, that while McKenzie very well may be done for the year, there is so much promise on his right arm than many might have thought just a couple of months ago.

Since Major League Baseball rang in the second half of the year (which comes well after the actual midway point), McKenzie has been among baseball’s best. Before being shut down, he had pitched 42 innings in the second half, against about 49 in the first. Boy, what a contrast.

McKenzie’s second-half ERA sits at 4.07. What we’re really interested in, though, is his 28.0 innings in August. His four starts for the month read as follows:

  • August 5th: 7 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 4 K, 0 BB
  • August 10th: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 5 K, 1 BB
  • August 15th: 8 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 11 K, 0 BB
  • August 21st: 7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 8 K, 1 BB

That’s a 1.93 ERA in those four starts. Obviously, the notable thing here is the walks, though, with only two of them across the four. A far cry from the guy who walked at least four on seven different occasions on his way to giving up at least five earned six different times.

That’s indicative of a larger trend that we’ve seen from McKenzie in the second half of the season. His BB/9 for the second half is at just 1.50 (a 4.3 percent rate; consider that against the first half percentage). That ranks seventh (as in seventh-best) among 39 starters to throw at least 40 in that stretch of time. What’s more is that his Hard% has fallen back down to 28.7 and represents one of the best marks among that group. He’s inducing less groundball contact, but he’s also garnering soft contact at a rate of nearly 30 percent. As such, his HR/FB rate was just 5.6 in August. It was at 24.0 percent in July. Obviously, the strikeout numbers have come down as well, where he’s at 8.36/9.

What’s even better about all of this is that it’s fairly simple to pinpoint exactly where the newfound success is coming from. McKenzie hasn’t altered his usage or suddenly learn how to command his pitches; it’s a trust thing. He’s trusting his stuff, he’s attacking hitters, and it’s paying off.

At 32.6 percent, McKenzie’s Zone% in the first half was the worst of those 151 pitchers. That figure in the second half has leapt up to 43.0, which ranks fourth out of the 39 “qualifiers” in the latter summer months. Paul Sporer over at RotoGraphs broke down some of the further intricacies of McKenzie’s sudden increase in command, including first-pitch strikes and the specific breakdown as far as pitch types go. One note in there stood out to me, in particular, and that was about his long-term health:

The lingering issue is health and durability as his 6’5/165-pound frame (my perfect body comp, even better than Chris Sale and Carl Edwards Jr.) only managed topping 100 innings once in the minors and missed all of the 2019 season due to injuries.

That’s the most unfortunate thing about talking marveling at Triston McKenzie at the close of August. I can spout a bunch of words here and showcase just how impressive he’s been in the second half, but it may all end up moot if we don’t see him again until 2022. One hopes that this doesn’t become a lingering thing, though, because although he doesn’t necessarily have the heater of a fastball, he has enough dancing breaking stuff to make him an absolute blast to watch. As that stuff continues to develop, his increasing willingness to attack the zone could combine to watch those K and BB numbers continue to trend in opposite directions, for the better.

Provided his body is up to the challenge.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.