It all started with this guy named Babe Ruth.
A pitcher by trade when he entered the league, Ruth spent the first four seasons of his illustrious career on the mound, tossing his way to a 2.28 ERA over 163 appearances. However, it soon became clear that as good as he was throwing the ball, he was even better at hitting it, and he made the transition into the lineup full-time after being traded to the Yankees. The rest is home run history.
Since then, baseball has had a love affair with players who can both hit and pitch. The biggest name on the international market right now is Shohei Otani, a 102-mile-per-hour flamethrower who won the Japanese Pacific League’s Best Nine award, given to the top player at each position, at both starting pitcher and designated hitter.
In terms of this year’s MLB draft, two more two-way players have made headlines all spring. We’ve all heard the name Hunter Greene, a Sports Illustrated cover boy and first-round candidate at both pitcher and shortstop, all at the ripe age of 17.
The other, while certainly less buzzy than the aforementioned Greene, has garnered his share of headlines as well and will challenge Greene for the top pick in next Monday’s draft.
His name? Brendan McKay. His game? As well-rounded as it gets.
Named Baseball America’s Player of the Year for 2017 while adding on to a list of honors that rivals some Russian novels in length, McKay excels as both a lefty ace and a sweet-swinging first baseman. Despite entering the year with many scouts already salivating over him, the junior has managed to expand on those expectations with numbers gaudy enough to boggle the mind into dazed dismay.
Many mock drafts also have him available when the Padres are on the clock with the third overall pick this Monday. Is McKay a player who can fit the future framework of the Friars?
Let’s take a look.
On the mound, where many scouts believe McKay’s future ultimately lies, the Louisville Cardinals ace thrives on pinpoint command of three above-average offerings. His fastball can run as high as 94 on the radar gun, but usually sits in the upper eighties and low nineties according to scouts, something that doesn’t hinder him because of his ability to move the ball around the zone. That heater is complimented by two off-speed offerings: a power curveball that many consider to be one of the best in the draft class, and a change-up that has taken a significant step forward this season. That arsenal allowed McKay to pitch to a 2.31 ERA with 131 strikeouts against just 33 walks over a 97-inning workload in 2017, impressive stats for any new-age projection model.
As good as McKay has been on the mound in 2017, however, he has managed to match every bit of it with his production at the plate, hitting his way to a robust .356/.476/.683 triple slash line with 56 RBI and 54 runs over 59 games. McKay’s smooth swing and mature approach to every part of the ballpark has some evaluators projecting him as a future .300 hitter and high OBP guy in the bigs. Furthermore, prior doubts about his power potential were quieted with a 17-homer 2017 campaign in the middle of the Cardinals’ line-up. A first baseman when he doesn’t pitch, McKay has a strong arm (duh) and shows off enough mobility to be an above-average asset on defense.
McKay backs his balanced skill set with pro-ready intangibles as well. His clean, simple mechanics and high baseball IQ on the mound and at the plate should allow him to continue to excel on both sides of the ball at the next level. At 6’2” and 212 pounds, he has a solid physical frame and has shown no signs of injury risk so far in his career, and as college baseball’s biggest name and a part of one of the top programs in the country, he has demonstrated an ability to maintain his performance under the spotlight of big games and constant headlines. For those keeping score at home, that’s all very, very good for a guy projected to go in the first five picks of the draft.
McKay’s true shortcomings, meanwhile, appear to be few and far between. The biggest is a lack of straight-line speed that will hinder him on the base paths, although as a first baseman and/or pitcher, that’s not exactly a game changer for him. Furthermore, as mentioned above, his power potential at the plate was questioned by some coming into 2017, and it remains to be seen whether his homer binge this spring is a mirage or a legitimate expansion of his skills.
As someone who lacks a high-nineties heater on the mound, blazing speed on the bases, or the ability to bruise baseballs into oblivion at the plate, McKay also doesn’t come with the sexy tools of players who usually occupy the top spots on draft boards. His appeal is more high-floor than high-ceiling, and as such, a team intent on swinging for the fences and landing a future perennial All-Star may end up looking elsewhere.
Ultimately, though, that absence of dream-on-me upside is not something that should scare the Padres off of the 21-year-old lefty. McKay brings a polished, mature approach to both sides of the ball, and many experts believe he can be penciled in as a future mid-rotation starter (an early-years Jon Lester comes to mind) or high-average bat with moderate pop (think Eric Hosmer) without much thought. Those same scouts also believe there’s some room for more projection once he decides to focus on one side of the game, and that the two-way talent will make quick work of the minors once he’s picked up by a franchise.
As for interested teams, he’s a fairly easy candidate to see going Number 1 overall to Minnesota (if they want a two-way player but are scared off by the risk of high school righty Greene) or at Number 2 to Cincinnati (who have routinely expressed interest in him this spring). Already drafted by the Friars once (in the 34th round in 2014), however, McKay is as good a bet as any to end up with the organization again this year if still available.
A player who has drawn some ambitious comps to a Cy Young candidate on the mound while having the potential to give Wil Myers the occasional off day in the field once he arrives in the Gaslamp Quarter?
Two words: yes,please.