Ryan McKenna has been pounding Carolina League pitching. Playing for the Frederick Keys, the 21-year-old Baltimore Orioles outfield prospect is slashing a lusty .377/.467/.556 with 18 doubles and eight home runs. He leads the High-A circuit in batting average by a whopping 57 points. (Milwaukee Brewers 2017 first-rounder Keston Hiura ranks second.)
McKenna, who started in center field and went 1-for-2 in last night’s Carolina League All-Star Game, was taken in the fourth round of the 2015 draft out of a Dover, New Hampshire, high school. He bypassed a scholarship offer from Liberty University to sign with the Orioles. The decision was an easy one to make.
“I was ready to play,” explained McKenna, who grew up in Berwick, Maine, a short drive from the Catholic school where he excelled as a raw-but-promising prep. “I had a good opportunity at Liberty, a Division I school with a great program, but this path was meant for me. Ultimately, my gift has been athletics, so solely focusing on that was the right journey.”
He had little idea what to expect when the journey started. Having “no reference point to go off of,” he was simply excited that “one of the 30 ball clubs believed in me.” (And, based on his breakthrough, they certainly haven’t stopped believing.)
McKenna knew going in that the Orioles were interested, but when and where he would ultimately go in the draft remained a mystery.
“We had about 20 scouts from the different organizations,” recalled McKenna, whose agent told him anywhere from the second to the sixth round was a possibility. “The Orioles actually didn’t come to my house, although they did see me plenty of times and I met their area scout at a bunch of my games. They were just saying, ‘We like what we see, so keep doing what you’re doing and hopefully…'”
The native New Englander nearly landed close to home.
“The Red Sox called me on the second day of the draft,” related McKenna. “They asked, ‘What is it going to take to make you a Red Sox?’ But then, just before I was about to be picked, my agent called and said, ‘The Orioles are going to take you here.’ It would have been cool to be picked by my hometown team, but I have no complaints whatsoever. The Orioles are an awesome organization. (Boston took high-school outfielder Jagger Rusconi eight picks after Baltimore took McKenna.)
It took time for him to gain traction in pro ball. Limited to 10 Gulf Coast League games in his draft year due to an ankle injury, McKenna proceeded to put up a .629 OPS in the New York-Penn League in his first full season. Last year, he slashed a nondescript .256/.331/.380 as a 20-year-old in the South Atlantic League.
McKenna attributes his breakthrough this season largely to diligence and the passage of time.
“I think the biggest thing for me has been experience,” he said. “I’ve had a great coaching staff — they’ve kind of molded me — and I came to realize over time that it’s a process. I was just a kid when I came into pro ball, anxious and excited to get to the big leagues. But it doesn’t happen instantaneously. You have to do the little things right every day in order to translate into what you want to be.”
McKenna doesn’t feel his swing has changed — “just little adjustments to keep it more consistent” — but his plate discipline has. The right-handed hitter’s walk rate has risen to 12.3% from last year’s 8.1%, while his K rate has dropped from 24.2% to 15.0%. Visualization has played a role in what he considers his most impactful adjustment.
“It’s been big for me,” said McKenna. “I think that visualization is what has allowed me to hit offspeed and still stay on the fastball. Seeing the curveball before it happens gives me a significantly better chance to hit it. But ultimately, it’s about rhythm and timing. It’s about being in sync with [the pitcher’s] release point and seeing the ball.”
Seeing it and shooting the gaps. McKenna stands 5-foot-11 and weighs a tad under 190 pounds, so he doesn’t profile to hit a lot of balls over fences. He recognizes who he is. Professing to “not really know anything about launch angle,” the fast-rising farmhand focuses instead on being “a line-drive guy who gets on base and scores runs.” And he’s doing more than just that. McKenna heads into the second half of the season leading the Carolina League not only in batting average and runs scored, but also OBP, SLG, OPS, wOBA, and wRC+. Not bad for an unheralded fourth-round pick out of Maine via New Hampshire.
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.