A Conversation With Astros Pitching Prospect Colin McKee

Colin McKee has exceeded expectations since being featured in a July 2017 Sunday Notes column. At the time, the Mercyhurst University graduate was not only a year removed from being drafted in the 18th round by the Houston Astros, he was playing short-season ball as a 23-year-old. To say the odds were stacked against him would be an understatement.

To a lesser extent, they still are. While McKee earned Texas League All-Star honors last season, he’s a soon-to-turn-26-year-old right-handed reliever who failed to impress after being promoted to Triple-A. Even so, some of his numbers suggest that he’s more than capable of taking those final steps. In 64 innings between Corpus Christi and Round Rock, McKee punched out 82 batters and allowed just 32 hits. Moreover, he’s studious about his craft. His post-playing career plans no longer include med school, but rather a position within pitching development.


David Laurila: When we talked three years ago, you were 23 years old and playing short-season ball. I recall you being open about the long odds you were facing.

Colin McKee: “I definitely wasn’t ultra optimistic. I’m lucky that the Astros gave me the leash they did, because over the last couple of years I’ve started to figure some things out. I’m enjoying playing baseball, and hopefully I can continue to build on the progress I’ve made.”

Laurila: What were you thinking when you reported to spring training the following year? I assume your mindset was something along the lines of ‘sink or swim.’

McKee: “I wouldn’t say I was in desperation mode, but I was certainly aware of my age and the fact that I hadn’t played above short-season. Patrick Sandoval, who is with the Angels now, and I went down a week early. All I was thinking was, ‘Do anything to make a full-season roster.’ All I was hoping was to break camp with somebody and see what happens from there. Luckily I broke with Quad Cities, in the Midwest League, and pitched well enough that after three weeks they moved me up to the Carolina League.”

Laurila: What were your biggest development strides that season?

McKee: “I got more comfortable with my delivery. When I was drafted in 2016, the Astros suggested some delivery changes that I tried to implement, but it wasn’t a very fast process. I’d been kind of a tall-and-fall type guy; I didn’t use my back leg hardly at all. In 2017, in extended spring training and short-season, I was trying to implement that in games and just wasn’t very comfortable. By the time 2018 rolled around, I started to feel more consistent with my timing out of that delivery. I could actually execute pitches, and not worry about mechanical things. I could just pitch.”

Laurila: What specifically were the adjustments?

McKee: “It was about getting more flexion in my right leg, with my hip and my knee. I was basically trying to keep my heel and mid-foot engaged with the mound as long as I possibly could, as opposed to getting up on my toe early as I was coming off the mound, and kind of just spinning. I was trying to have a little more true rotation with my hips. That’s helped me have better direction, and have more force going down the mound.”

Laurila: Were drills part of that process?

McKee: “Yes. I worked on the mobility of my hips, internally and externally rotating them, doing some 90/90 drills. I still do that pretty much every day as part of my warmup. There were also some drills I would do with a band, to teach me the motor pattern of truly rotating the hips into that lead leg, instead of spinning around that lead leg. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s made for a pretty big change in the results of me throwing a baseball.”

Laurila: Your walk numbers [44 in 64 innings] were on the high side last year, particularly during your short stint in Triple-A. Why was the Pacific Coast League so challenging?

McKee: “In Double-A, all I was reading about was the home run numbers in Triple-A. It was like, ‘Holy crap.’ You’d see some of the results and teams would be putting up football scores. Then, when I actually got there, I saw how balls with barely 90 mph exit velocities were leaving ballparks. Because of that, I ended up changing my mentality rather than trusting what had worked in the Texas League. I tried to be a little too perfect, especially with my off-speed. The next time I get a chance at that level, I’ll be a lot better prepared to keep the right mentality.”

Laurila: The PCL was obviously using big-league baseballs as opposed to minor-league baseballs. Did you notice any difference in how your pitches played?

McKee: “I did notice that my slider… I threw two different off-speed pitches last year. One was a sweepier type of slider, and the other more of a cutter-type gyro slider. The way the gyro-type slider was coming out of my hand felt different, and the action I was getting on it wasn’t nearly as consistent. Some of the [pitches] weren’t doing anything at all on the way to the plate, which maybe played a factor in me trying to do too much — trying to create a shape instead of trusting my wrist position and letting the ball do the work. But after working with those balls over the offseason, I’m feeling a lot more comfortable. I’m getting more of the downer action that I’d been getting with the minor-league balls.”

Laurila: Being in the Astros system, technology and pitch design are presumably a big part of your development process.

McKee: “Yeah, we’ve done plenty of that. That’s for sure. And being from around Pittsburgh, I got linked up with the Diamond Kinetics company. One of their products is a bat sensor, and another one is a pitch tracker. Basically, you have these sensors inside of a baseball and your pitch metrics upload onto an app on your phone. It gives you the spin rate, the spin axis, the spin efficiency, the velocity, your extension… pretty much everything. I use that pretty frequently in the offseason. One thing I’ve done is turn the sweepy slider into more of a curveball. I’m basically trying to throw a pitch that’s opposite of my fastball. My fastball is in a 1:30 spin axis range, and my curveball is at 7:30.

“Another thing is that the Astros sent us iPads to use for our Slack channels. I’ll bring that and set up the camera behind me. There isn’t the detail of an Edgertronic, but I can still make sure I’m keeping supination with my wrist through release on my curveball, so that I can get that ultra-efficient spin instead of pronating slightly too early.”

Laurila: How would you describe your fastball?

McKee: “I’m a true three-quarters arm slot, so my fastball has basically a rise-and-run profile. I’m basing my whole repertoire off that pitch, because it’s relatively high-spin, high-spin efficiency; it does really well metric-wise.”

Laurila: What are the metrics?

McKee: “It will vary from 2,300 to 2,500 on the RPMs…

Laurila: That’s a pretty wide range.

McKee: “Honestly, depending on which stadium you’re at… I know that Corpus Christi had all of our vertical movements bumped down by 2-3-4 inches on our fastballs. If you’re normally plus-19-21, guys were 15-17. There’s some variability in the TrackMans from stadium to stadium.”

Laurila: What about on the Diamond Kinetics pitch tracker?

McKee: “That can vary as well. Sometimes I’ll get my curveballs up to 2,600, and other times they’ll be closer to 2,200. You kind of have to average them out. You’re probably not spinning them that differently, so I think the way we’re acquiring data… there’s a degree of error in everything we use, from radar guns to Rapsodo to TrackMan.”

Laurila: Where are you in terms of velocity?

McKee: “My average fastball velo was 93.6, and I was up to 97, so I’m generally in the 92-95 range. That’s pretty average for a right-handed reliever, but my vertical and horizontal [movement] are both above average, and I’ve been told that I have a touch of deception. I basically slide step every time — I’m from 0.95 to one second to the plate — and when I get feedback from hitters, they say it’s difficult for them to get their timing down. A lot of hitters go into a leg kick, trying to create a little more power, and I think I kind of catch guys off guard the first time I face them.

“Off that fastball, I throw the gyro slider, which has pretty low spin efficiency in the mid-to-upper 80s depending on the day. Visually, if you watch that pitch without any metrics you’d assume it has some movement, but when you look at the spin data it’s like it shouldn’t move at all. It’s kind of a weird little pitch. Some of it is arm slot. Being three-quarters, I have to drive it across to my glove side to get it there, so it looks like it’s moving right-to-left, while in actuality it’s probably just dropping due to gravity. What it does is sells a fastball line long enough to be deceptive to hitters.”

Laurila: How does one go about throwing a gyro slider?

McKee: “What I do is take my four-seam grip and shift it to a pretty much true cutter grip. I’m trying to stay behind the ball as long as possible, then I basically try to feel the ball come off the left side of my right index finger. When I get it to come off of that spot is when I’m really creating the spin that I want. That pitch took me a long time to figure out. It’s not like a curveball cue, where it’s ‘karate chop down.’ That one is pretty simplistic, whereas with rifle spin, you’re basically spinning it like a football. That’s not what I’m thinking when I throw it, though.”

Laurila: One last thing: Three years ago you mentioned med school and a baseball front office as post-pitching-career possibilities. What are you thinking now?

McKee: “I’m working for Diamond Kinetics as their pitching-development advisor, and I love pitching, so I would love to do something in baseball. If that doesn’t work out I still have my biology degree, but I’m probably past the med school point, because I don’t want to be paying off loans until I’m 60. Maybe PA school — I think physician’s assistant would be a pretty realistic non-baseball route — but if my playing career ended tomorrow, I would probably see if there if were any player development opportunities out there. That’s stuff I really enjoy, and I think I’m pretty good at it. Not to brag, but I went from being a non-prospect high school kid to a Double-A All-Star, so at least I’ve figured out how to develop myself. I’d like to think I could help out some other people as well.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Mean Mr. Mustard
3 years ago

Thank you David. I really enjoy when they’re candid about what they do and where they’re hoping to do. Some really interesting terminology from him that does a great job of communicating the idea behind it.