PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — In the baseball laboratory that is the Tampa Bay Rays, with bubbling beakers here and relievers masquerading as starters there, what Brendan McKay is doing may not be the most unusual thing going.
Not with reliever Sergio Romo starting five times during one 13-game stretch in late May and early June.
But in this summer of Shohei Ohtani, as the Japanese sensation made waves in Southern California before landing on the disabled list with a sprained elbow on Friday, the Rays, of course, have a two-way player stashed away in their system as well.
It is nothing new for McKay, who has been pitching and hitting for most of his life, starting long before Ohtani’s versatility went viral.
He did it so well in high school that as the University of Louisville was recruiting him, Cardinals coach Dan McDonnell told McKay’s father that if Brendan came to Louisville, they wouldn’t know what to do with him.
“Make him pitch? Have him play the field? They told me that numerous times: We don’t know what to do,” Bruce McKay, Brendan’s father, says, still amused.
Then he did it so well at Louisville that come last summer’s draft, Tampa Bay made him the fourth overall pick and said, Absolutely, we’ll give you every chance to play two ways.
Now he’s done it so well to begin his first full professional season that in May, the Rays promoted him from Low-A Bowling Green (Kentucky) to High-A Charlotte (Florida).
Through his first 10 appearances at those two stops this season, McKay, 22, racked up a stunning 64 strikeouts against just three walks. Yes, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 21-1.
This keeps up, maybe it won’t be too long until the Rays introduce a two-way player to help satiate the masses until Ohtani returns.
“He makes advanced pitches that you want to see from a Triple-A guy who is on the doorstep to the bigs,” raves Charlotte Stone Crabs pitching coach Steve Watson, a baseball lifer whom everyone here knows as “Doc.”
Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press
Unknown right now is whether McKay’s bat can keep pace with his arm. Playing first base or DH’ing at Bowling Green on days when he wasn’t pitching, he posted a .484 on-base percentage over 21 games. In his first 14 games with Charlotte, he’s at .344.
At times, doing both is both exhilarating and a little confusing.
As the draft approached last June and various scouts and scouting directors interviewed McKay, the conversations always got around to the same subject.
“Every team was asking, what do you like more?” McKay says. “And I’d say, I don’t know! I just like to be on the field.”
He throws a four-pitch mix that includes a fastball that is clocked between 91 and 94 mph, cutter (87 mph), changeup (83-84) and curve (80-82). Sometimes the cutter acts like a slider, depending on how much movement he’s getting. Always, he throws with the precision of a draftsman.
“My dad would always set up a glove and have me throw to the target,” McKay says. “Even if there was no plate and we were just playing catch, he would stand there with the glove and tell me to hit the spot.”
McKay gravitated to baseball when he was three or four years old and started pitching at seven. He never had pitching lessons. When he wound up and tried to throw harder, his father would stop him and make one thing clear: Hit the target first and then throw harder. Miss the target, back off on the velocity until you get the control right.
“He’s always had good mechanics,” Bruce McKay says. “I used to harp on him when we played catch if he started to throw sidearm. I’d say, ‘No. Over the top.'”
Courtesy of Bruce McKay
Bruce solved that issue by incorporating a drill he used while coaching McKay’s two older sisters—Jennifer, 39, and Heather, 37—in softball: The girls would throw next to a fence, which would prevent them from throwing sidearm. They had no choice but to throw over the top, or else they’d scrape their hands against the chain link.
“He hated the fence drill,” Bruce says, chuckling. “Every time he’d throw sidearm, I’d say, ‘Do you want to do the fence drill?’ And he’d say no.”
You could say McKay has been fighting against being fenced in for most of his baseball life. Which is why McKay and the Rays appear to be a perfect fit.
“I’m in my ninth year here, and one of the really neat things working in Tampa Bay is we are innovative,” says Dewey Robinson, a Rays pitching coordinator who previously coached in the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros systems. “We are not afraid to think outside the box and look for an edge or advantage in some way, shape or form.
“Analytics, some of the drills we do, what we’re doing now in the bigs with the ‘opener’ [using a reliever to obtain the first three to six outs to boost the would-be starter so he can get deeper into a game] … we’re looking to compete in the AL East with New York, Boston, Toronto and Baltimore, and it’s difficult.”
As a result, Robinson says the Rays have to find an edge. “We’ve done a lot of things outside the box that are successful and some things that haven’t been successful. What’s great about this organization is we’re not afraid to try this stuff,” he says. “Before the draft, I never thought we’d get Brendan, and when he landed in our lap, I thought this could be really neat.”
He says it has been that. “As I got to know him, I thought, ‘This is the right guy.’ First of all, he’s playing the right position, first base. It would be more difficult if he was playing elsewhere. And he’s a very polished left-handed pitcher.”
Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Until his injury, Ohtani started roughly every sixth game for the Angels and was the designated hitter three or four days a week. He was not in the lineup the day before he pitched or the day after. Working off the schedule Ohtani kept in Japan, the Angels worked to ensure he was prepared for his mound duties.
The schedule McKay keeps is different: He does not swing the bat on the day he pitches or on the day he throws his between-starts bullpen session (generally three days after a start, which, like Ohtani, is every six days). The other days he plays first base, except for the day before and day after he pitches, when he generally is the designated hitter. Similar to the Angels with Ohtani, the Rays take many of their cues from McKay regarding his schedule, figuring he knows what works.
“I stay out of his way,” says Watson, the Stone Crabs pitching coach. “Seriously. He’s very established in his routine and effort, and in the sideline work he puts in, he’s very focused. I haven’t made any suggestions to him, quite honestly. He hasn’t shown any nicks in his armor. It’s going to take hitters with big league at-bats to help him make any adjustments.”
In his position, Robinson is the point man on the pitching side. He is the conduit between McKay and the Rays front office.
“This is a valuable guy,” Robinson says. “I want to make sure he gets through this healthy and productive and moves along. I feel like if there are any issues, he’s got someone to go to.”
Nothing is static: If McKay only throws 40 or 50 pitches over two or three innings in an outing, maybe he plays first base the next day. But if he throws, say, 60 or 70 pitches over seven innings, as he says, “you’re going to be a little wiped out the next day. That’s where the DH part comes in.”
Like Ohtani, McKay is viewed by many as a curiosity. NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting organization, sent a television crew to Florida and followed McKay around for four days this spring. Meantime, many of his teammates with both Charlotte and Bowling Green peppered him with plenty of questions during spring training.
“They’re just as interested in it as everybody else is,” McKay says.
Same as it was at Louisville.
“Early on, guys were like, ‘This guy thinks he’s great,’ and it rubbed guys the wrong way. And then, he went out and did it,” says Nick Solak, a teammate of McKay’s at Louisville who now plays second base at Tampa Bay’s Double-A affiliate in Montgomery, Alabama. “Once he started doing it, guys were impressed.”
His adaptation is as much mental as physical. In college, teams play three or four times a week. The minor league grind includes 140 or 150 games a summer, plus the possibility of playoffs. Then there are the interminable bus rides.
“If you get down on yourself, it could turn into a month of bad baseball,” McKay says.
Michael Reaves/Getty Images
That’s one thing he hasn’t encountered yet. As the Rays expected, though, his bat is behind his pitching. Whereas Low-A pitchers tended to nibble and his patience boosted his on-base percentage, High-A pitchers have challenged him with more first-pitch fastballs, and McKay is still figuring it out, often from behind in the count.
“He’s very patient at the plate. He sees a lot of pitches,” Charlotte manager Reinaldo Ruiz says. “We’d like to see him be more aggressive. His bat speed is there. But if he keeps pitching like this, he’s going to be gone soon.”
Watson, now in his 32nd year of coaching, says what he sees on the mound is the ease with which McKay does so many things. He thinks back to his days in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and says McKay reminds him of Doug Drabek in how he controls the pace of a game, his tempo on the mound, his makeup. And Drabek had seven or eight years in the majors at that point.
The biggest threat to McKay’s two-way game? Whether the Rays like his pitching so much that they can’t resist the temptation to promote him, even if his bat isn’t ready. McKay knows this, saying he intends to “keep doing both until you see that I’ve got to make a decision to keep moving, or if someone else from the outside sees it.”
Until then, it’s the same game he’s been playing since he was a kid in Darlington, Pennsylvania, in the famous western area of the state where schoolboy football legends Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino grew up. Same game that his parents, Bruce and Kim, watched him give up basketball for when he was a high school sophomore.
He doesn’t view it as his personal mission to knock down barriers and open minds, except in one area. If others can hit and pitch at a high level, he’d like to have his example encourage them to give it a try.
“It seems like kids would see it and want to do it,” he says.
And maybe one day, perhaps sooner than later, they will.
“Hopefully it will become a thing, the two-way player,” Rays starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi says. “It would be cool to see.”
Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash has yet to see McKay except on video—he wasn’t in major league camp this spring—but he is well aware of what is going on. Both with McKay, and beyond.
“I think you’ll see more of it,” Cash says. “I do. I think the game is more open-minded now. Not a lot of organizations want to be first with something. There’s a lot of skepticism and criticism that comes with being first.
“But if it works, a hell of a lot of them don’t mind being second.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.