Triston McKenzie and the Return of the Strikeout Stuff

Triston McKenzie
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Triston McKenzie recorded double-digit strikeouts three times last season. That puts him in some good company — other pitchers who did so include Framber Valdez, Taijuan Walker, and Shane Bieber — but hardly elite territory. Carlos Rodón led the way with 11 double-digit strikeout games, and 19 different pitchers had at least four such outings.

Now let’s bump up the strikeout threshold. McKenzie recorded at least 11 strikeouts in a game three times last season. This feat was a little more unusual; other starters with three 11-strikeout games were breakout star Nestor Cortes and Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara. Only nine pitchers had four or more appearances with 11-plus strikeouts. Shohei Ohtani led the way with seven such starts.

Let’s keep going. McKenzie recorded at least 12 strikeouts in a game three times last season. No pitcher in baseball had more such starts. The only pitchers to match his total were Ohtani, Rodón, Gerrit Cole, and Spencer Strider. That’s a damn good group to be a part of:

A Damn Good Group To Be a Part Of
Pitcher IP K/9 ERA FIP xFIP
Shohei Ohtani 166.0 11.87 2.33 2.40 2.65
Carlos Rodón 178.0 11.98 2.88 2.25 2.91
Gerrit Cole 200.2 11.53 3.50 3.47 2.77
Spencer Strider 131.2 13.81 2.67 1.83 2.30
Triston McKenzie 191.1 8.94 2.96 3.59 3.77

Hopefully, you’re starting to pick up on something atypical about McKenzie. He had three games with 12 or more strikeouts but never topped eight in his 28 other outings. He was one of only six pitchers to twirl a 14-strikeout game, yet he averaged seven strikeouts per start with a median of six. His name and numbers look wildly out of place in the company of Ohtani, Rodón, Cole, and Strider.

Those four are some of the most dominant strikeout arms in the game. Rodón, Ohtani, and Cole led qualified pitchers in K/9 last year, and Strider easily would have led the pack had he thrown enough innings to qualify. McKenzie, on the other hand, finished the 2022 season with 8.94 K/9, not much higher than league average:

2022 Strikeout Numbers
Pitcher K/9
Triston McKenzie 8.94
League Average 8.53
League Average (Starters) 8.18
League Average (Qualified Starters) 8.57

What’s more, if you remove McKenzie’s games of 12 or more strikeouts from the calculation, he winds up with 8.07 K/9. On the days when he wasn’t a strikeout god, he was a mere mortal, punching out batters less often than the average starting pitcher. You could argue it isn’t fair to strike his three best starts from the record; every pitcher’s stats would look worse if you removed his best games. In this case, however, it highlights the difference between the pitcher McKenzie was on his best days and the pitcher he was day in and day out. Ohtani, Rodón, Cole, and Strider still have elite strikeout numbers if you ignore all their 12-strikeout games. Heck, they still have excellent numbers if you remove all their double-digit strikeout games. McKenzie, in contrast, wasn’t a strikeout-heavy pitcher — except for the days when he was.

On July 14 against the Tigers, McKenzie struck out 12, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that Javy Báez was taking the day off. A month later, on August 19, he struck out 14 White Sox batters, punching out every man in the order at least once. When he took on Chicago again another month later, this time he punched out a lucky 13. He buried his face in his glove as he strode off the field, either screaming with delight or struggling to read the label on the inside of his mitt.

To someone less familiar with McKenzie’s career, it might seem as if all these strikeouts came out of nowhere. Yet in truth, it wasn’t so long ago that he was a high-volume strikeout artist. The young right-hander was drafted out of high school after notching 15.3 K/9 in his senior year, and he continued missing bats as he moved up through the Guardians’ system:

McKenzie’s Strikeout Rate Over the Years
Year Level K/9 IP
2015 Rookie 12.8 12.0
2016 Low-A, Single-A 11.2 83.1
2017 High-A 11.7 143.0
2018 Double-A 8.6 90.2
2020 MLB 11.3 33.1
2021 MLB 10.2 120.0
2022 MLB 8.9 191.1

It was midway through the 2021 season when the strikeouts began to disappear. After a promising cup of coffee in 2020, McKenzie faltered to start the following season. In his first 11 appearances, he gave up 8.29 walks per nine, the highest rate for a starting pitcher in any 11-game span that season. His 12.54 K/9 was still excellent, but it wasn’t enough to offset the free passes. he was bleeding runs left and right, and eventually the Guardians sent him off to Triple-A to figure things out.

McKenzie returned in mid-July with a new approach to keep his walk rate under control. He threw far more pitches in the strike zone, aiming to induce weak contact instead of chases off the plate:

McKenzie’s New Approach
Timeframe Zone% Contact%
Apr.-Jun. 32.5% 69.4%
Jul.-Oct. 43.7% 76.5%

Early in the season, McKenzie was throwing nearly two-thirds of his pitches outside the strike zone. Batters were chasing at a number of them, which is how he racked up the strikeouts, but there were still plenty of balls to let go, hence the walks. This approach might have worked in the low minors against less disciplined hitters, but it wasn’t getting the job done in the show. So upon his return from Triple-A, he began throwing more strikes. It’s not often that a single heat map of all a pitcher’s pitches is very useful, but in this case, I think it does the job quite nicely:

McKenzie’s new approach worked exactly as it was supposed to. Opposing players swung at a higher percentage of his pitches both inside and outside the zone. His first-pitch strike rate jumped from 56.1% to 67.3%. He walked only 19 batters in 77.2 IP, good for 2.20 BB/9. And although hitters were making more contact against him, that contact did less damage because he was allowing fewer baserunners.

As an added bonus, McKenzie saw a slight uptick in his velocity, something we don’t often associate with better control. His four-seam fastball was more than a mile per hour faster, as was his curve. I’d surmise that he was able to throw harder because he wasn’t working so laboriously to get through innings and plate appearances. From April to June, he averaged 4.29 pitches per PA and 4.46 batters faced per IP. Those numbers dropped to 3.81 P/PA and 3.94 BF/IP in the second half of the season.

In order to pull off this remarkable turnaround, however, McKenzie had to make a compromise. All things considered, he was a much better pitcher, but his strikeout rate went from elite to merely average for the rest of the year. From July to October, he struck out 8.92 batters per nine, a far cry from his 12.54 rate early in the season. He carried his new approach into the 2022 season, throwing even more pitches in the zone. Accordingly, he kept his walk rate down and his strikeout rate just above league average. Things continued to work out well for him, as he finished with a 3.59 FIP in 191.1 innings, good for 3.6 WAR.

All this to say, McKenzie isn’t just your typical pitcher with run-of-the-mill strikeout numbers. He is an arm with elite punch-out capabilities who chooses to forgo strikeouts so as to keep his walk rate in check. It’s not the most exciting approach, but it’s one that has worked out well thus far in his career. But in three magnificent games last season, he saw his strikeout stuff break free. To make that even more impressive, he earned those strikeouts without compromises, maintaining his high zone rate in all three starts and not walking a single batter in any of those outings, making him the only pitcher in baseball with three starts of 12-plus strikeouts and zero walks. Sure, it helped that all three games came against either the Tigers or White Sox, the two teams with the highest swing rates and lowest walk rates in baseball last season. But every pitcher faces easier opponents now and then, and no one accomplished what McKenzie did last season.

Like a 6’5″ Hannah Montana, McKenzie found the best of both worlds. He was able to rediscover his elite strikeout stuff without letting the walks creep back in. If he can do that a little more often, the Guardians might just have another superstar on their hands.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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1 year ago

“He buried his face in his glove as he strode off the field, either screaming with delight or struggling to read the label on the inside of his mitt.”

He’s a baseball player; we’ll never know which xD