Brendan McKay continued his fantastic season this past Saturday. Making his big-league debut with the Tampa Bay Rays, the 23-year-old left-hander retired 18 of the 20 Texas Rangers batters he faced. And his work on the farm had been every bit as dominating. In 66.2 innings between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham, McKay compiled a 1.22 ERA and allowed just 38 hits.
And then there’s the offensive side of the equation. As you know, McKay can swing the bat. Aspiring to be the major’s next Shohei Ohtani — sans the Tommy John surgery — the former Golden Spikes winner as a two-way player at the University of Louisville was 11 for his last 33, with three home runs, at the time of his call-up.
What is his approach on each side of the ball, and does he truly expect to be able to play both ways at baseball’s highest level? I addressed those questions with the 2017 first-round pick a few days before he arrived in The Show.
Laurila: Nuts and bolts first question: What is your approach on the mound?
McKay: “I’m a pitcher who likes to get ahead — just like every other pitcher — and force the action, rather than letting the hitter have any control over the at-bat. That’s basically it.”
Laurila: Are you looking to induce contact, or are you out there trying to miss bats?
McKay: “A little bit of both. You’re obviously trying to get weak contact, but you also want to miss bats in some sort of way, whether that’s with weak contact or with swings-and-misses.”
Laurila: Missing bats is becoming more and more important, especially with the way the baseball has been flying this year.
McKay: “Yes. Guys are getting a lot stronger, and people say the ball is a little different and whatnot. Hitters are trying to get the ball in the air, so you almost have to pitch a little differently — change the way you pitch — to counteract that. You need to be able to get out of any inning with a groundball, or any kind of weak contact. “
Laurila: That said, are you pitching differently now than you did when you broke into pro ball?
McKay: “Not really, although the more I’ve moved up … I’ve maybe changed the way I sequence my pitches, or how early I start getting into some of my secondary stuff. Some of how I sequence is based on feel, and how my pitches are working. Some is based on who the hitter is, including his previous [plate appearances] against me. What have I shown him, and how has he reacted to it? There’s also the scouting [report].”
Laurila: Do you consider yourself a power pitcher?
McKay: “I wouldn’t say power pitcher in the sense that you’re 96-plus, and it looks a lot different. But I am in the sense that I’m going to pitch with a lot of conviction and make every pitch count. I try to throw everything where it’s going to be a tough call for the umpire as to whether it’s a strike or a ball. It’s going to be a good mix of pitches that are an inch off the plate — maybe half a ball off the plate — or just on the plate. I want them to be tough takes for the hitter, to where he’s unsure whether to swing or not.”
Laurila: What is your repertoire right now?
McKay: “Four-seam fastball, curveball, changeup, and cutter. Up until my junior year of college, I was mainly fastball-curveball. My junior year I started throwing changeups a little more, and got a better feel for it. Then I added a cutter, mostly to have something to go with against lefties besides a four-seam, straight — something to run off the plate. I’ve adapted what I like to do against right-handed hitters, too. I’ll use a cutter against them.”
Laurila: Do you get a lot of spin on your four-seamer?
McKay: “I don’t believe so. Personally, I’m not into all of the analytics we get. We get a lot of information, but I didn’t grow up with it. I like to pitch just giving it all I’ve got. I’m going to come after you, and force you to hit a pitch you may not want to hit. I want them to all be quality pitches.”
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.”
Laurila: Is there anyone in particular you’ve learned from in the past year or so?
McKay: “I’ve talked with certain guys, but it’s really more of anybody I come in contact with whose brains I can pick. I like to talk the game. I like to pick guys’ brains, and see what they’re doing. And if guys come to me, I’ll share my insights and try to help them out.”
Laurila: Does being a hitter help you on the mound?
McKay: “I like having that knowledge of what hitters want to do in the box. As a pitcher, I’m thinking along with them. I’ll maybe play into what they want early, and then go away from it later, or vice versa. I kind of get them thinking that I’m going to do something, then after they switch over to that — after they adapt — I’ll go back to what I was doing previously.
“Same thing for when I’m in the box. I’m thinking along with the pitcher — what he’s throwing and what I’ve seen so far. I’ll be thinking, ‘He might go here,’ so it’s at least in the back of my mind, and I won’t be surprised if he does.”
Laurila: Do you try to get in as much work as possible on each side of the ball, or do you need to tone down your workload on the hitting side?
McKay: “I try to get as many swings as I need to be prepared, any day that I’m playing. But having had two oblique injuries last year, I also try to limit how much I do. I want to stay on the healthy end, and not run into those kinds of issues, and lose time.”
Laurila: How would you describe your overall hitting approach?
McKay: “I’m trying to get pitches out over the plate that I can do damage with. Not necessarily to hit home runs, but to get hard contact — hard contact in the gaps. I want to drive the ball. If there are guys on base, I want to drive them in. If the bases are empty, I want to put the ball in a gap and get into scoring position.”
Laurila: Where are you in terms of patience versus aggression?
McKay: “I’ve got a little bit of both. It really just depends on how well I’m seeing the ball, how my body feels, and how my swing feels. If I’m feeling good, and seeing the ball really well, I’ll be aggressive. If the guy has a funky delivery, and I’m not seeing it that great, I’ll try to be patient. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick something up within the at-bat.”
Laurila: A lot of people feel you should stick to just one thing, be it pitching or hitting. Do you agree with that, or do you think you’re actually better when you’re balance both?
McKay: “I mean, I don’t really want to find out what would happen if I stuck to just one. I’ve been doing both sides of the ball for as long as I can remember. For me, it’s almost like I am doing one thing. If that makes sense.”
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.