The first thing you notice about Triston McKenzie is his size. He stands a spindly 6’5”, weighing in at only 165 lbs. When shaking hands with McKenzie you can feel the strength of his grip as his hand envelops yours. It is no wonder he has an intuitive feel for pitching that led the Indians to draft him 42nd overall in 2015.
Born in Brooklyn, New York his family moved to Royal Palm Beach, Florida, when he was young and he readily adapted to life in the south.
“I kind of like the setting down there a lot more, a slower lifestyle,” he said about growing up on the east coast of Florida.
He started out playing baseball and basketball, but the game of baseball held a stronger attraction for him.
“My first love was always baseball,” said McKenzie. “I enjoyed being at the field, period. Even outside of the games, I just enjoyed hanging around my friends, hanging around the game itself.”
In just a couple of years, McKenzie has gone from being a high school phenom to the third ranked prospect in the Cleveland farm system. At 19 years old, he still has a lot of physical and mental development ahead of him.
McKenzie had the option of going to college, having signed a letter of intent to attend Vanderbilt University, but the Commodores were not in his future. Instead, he signed a contract for over two million dollars to join the Indians organization.
“I think at the time the decision made itself for me,” said McKenzie. “When it presented itself, when I got drafted, it was kind of a no-brainer for me. Get a head start on my career, face a high level of competition, and as I grow, the competition will grow with me.”
He did get a clause for college in his contract just in case he decides to attend later. For now, he takes the mound every fifth day to face the competition in the High-A Carolina League.
In his final season in high school, he led the Royal Palm Beach Wildcats to the Class 7A state semifinals. He pitched three shutouts and tallied a 4-1 record for his efforts. His first full season as a pro was 2016, where he split time between rookie level Mahoning Valley and Low-A Lake County. In 15 starts, McKenzie struck out 104 batters in 83 innings.
His effectiveness continues for the Hillcats. Through eight starts, he has pitched 50 2/3 innings, with a 2.84 ERA, allowing only two home runs. His 66 strikeouts lead the Carolina League.
Three of his outings this season are shutouts. The most dominant of these outings was on a chilly Tuesday evening at Calvin Falwell Field in Lynchburg.
With the thermometer topping out at a cool 59°F to start the game, McKenzie made quick work of the opposing Carolina Mudcats lineup for the six innings he pitched. After walking the leadoff batter, he mowed down the next six batters mixing up his fastball, curveball, and change-up.
“I would say it was just another night,” said McKenzie about what would turn out to be a 14 strikeout outing. “I wouldn’t say I felt any better than usual, but they didn’t seem to be hitting the ball as well.”
Every hitter in the Mudcats lineup chalked up at least one strikeout against McKenzie. He struck out the side in three separate innings, half of his time on the mound. His stellar performance was against a team that boasts eleven of the Milwaukee organizations top 30 prospects. This included striking out four of the top seven prospects in the Brewers system: Lucas Erceg (7), Trent Clark (5), Isan Diaz (4), and Corey Ray (2), who struck out twice.
McKenzie did not realize how good his performance had been. “Not until I got off the mound,” he said.
With a pitch count limit of 95, he had 92 pitches thrown when he finished the sixth inning, He did not return to the mound for the seventh inning. McKenzie controlled the game that night. His ability to control the strike zone and keep opposing hitters off balance in this way is what makes him such a highly regarded pitcher.
On the strength of this 14-strikeout performance, McKenzie was named the Carolina League Pitcher of the Week ending on May 15. He topped his previous high of eleven strikeouts from the previous season facing off against the Great Lakes Loons.
“He’s one of our better athletes,” said pitching coach Rigo Beltran. “He’s very tall, athletic, and coordinated. Because of his athleticism he is able to translate that into his delivery.”
McKenzie is equally laudatory about working with Beltran.
“He’s able to put a lot of stuff into words,” he said about how Beltran helps him to incorporate analytic data into making improvements in his pitching. “I think his coaching skills have allowed me to go deeper into games. They put things in perspective and kind of let me understand how to control my body a bit more.”
When he is not on the field or hanging around the ballpark, he likes eating, sleeping, and playing video games. A typical response you might get from any 19-year-old.
“I’m very picky,” he said about what he likes to eat. “Normally Chipotle. A nice double rice bowl with double steak or double chicken.”
On the mound, he takes it one pitch at a time, diligently working to retire each batter. Working to improve all three of his offerings is his immediate goal. “If I can get them all to where I can throw them in any count, no matter who is up to bat, that’s what my goal is right now.”
Intelligent and thoughtful about his pitching, McKenzie has the time to grow, in mastering the mental skills of pitching, and filling out his tall frame. With the Indians well stocked in the pitching department, it is unlikely they will rush him through the farm system, but don’t be surprised if you see him toeing the rubber in Cleveland in a couple of years.
Photo: Ashley Stephenson/Lynchburg Hillcats