Note: This is the second story in a series based off interviews conducted by Modesto Nuts broadcaster Keaton Gillogly. Read the first, about Cal Raleigh and Logan Gilbert, here, and to get all the stories firsthand, tune in fifteen minutes before first pitch to hear Keaton’s pre-game interviews, and listen to the broadcast as he weaves in stories of the 2019 Modesto Nuts and the exciting things happening in Mariners player development.
Modesto pitcher Ian McKinney is not your run-of-the-mill guy. For starters, he has a cat named Lord Tyrion who walks on a leash and happily attends bark in the park events in his personalized, seasonally-appropriate bandana.
The 5’11” lefty isn’t your run-of-the-mill pitcher, either; after being released by the Cardinals and playing a few months of indy ball, McKinney has arrived in the Mariners organization with an intense desire to learn how to use the analytical data available to him to make his pitches perform to their best.
“He’s in my office 24/7 asking questions,” says Modesto pitching coach, Rob Marcello Jr. “It’s awesome to see.”
Drafted out of high school in the fifth round in 2013, McKinney was released by St. Louis 38 innings into the 2018 season after posting an ERA of over 5 for Double-A Springfield. The 23-year-old opted to get right back into baseball rather than waiting for an affiliated team to pick him up, signing with the independent Sioux City Explorers of the American Association. That’s where the Mariners spotted McKinney and signed him to a minor-league contract for 2019, ostensibly to help provide organizational depth. Instead, McKinney has emerged as Modesto’s ace, his career revitalized by a simple change in his delivery and an organization that provides him with the tools he needs to improve while encouraging him to be himself.
This season, McKinney has been a reliable workhorse for the Nuts, not missing a single start, and currently has the most innings pitched in the California League (124.1), and is leading the Cal League in wins. McKinney also currently ranks second in the offensive-happy Cal League in ERA, missing a tie for first by .01, and ranks second in strikeouts. His BB/9 has fallen to a career-low 3.5, and he’s striking out more than 25% of batters who face him while keeping the ball in the ballpark (a miserly 4.7% HR/FB rate), which is no small feat in the homer-happy Cal League. His ERA has steadily fallen each month; after a rough start to the season where he surrendered six runs in just over twenty innings for an ERA of 6.86, he cut that number in half in May, then shaved another point off it in June. All of that was just a preview, however, of his dominant July.
July was arguably the best month of McKinney’s career: he posted an ERA of 1.54 for the month, collected a league-leading 59 strikeouts, and ended it by tossing a complete game in which he took a perfecto into the sixth, struck out 12 and walked no one, earning him some praise from his skipper on Twitter:
Posted a picture of 2 @ModestoNuts pitchers working with technology yesterday on an off day. Well one of those guys, Ian McKinney went CG 12 K’s/0 W tonight. It’s just wanting to be better. What a month he had as he gets better each time out. Great job Mick #ClubhouseLifestyle— Denny Hocking (@bigleagueswings) July 31, 2019
(Here’s a link to the picture Hocking is referencing; not embedded because pitching coach Rob Marcello Jr.’s thighs are decidedly NSFW.)
The key to McKinney’s dramatic improvement in July is a simple adjustment made before his final start in June: McKinney moved about a foot over to the first base side of the pitching rubber. McKinney’s fastball isn’t overwhelming, sitting 90-93, but it has an extreme amount of rise, and that slight adjustment—forcing lefties to track a ball that’s coming from behind their eyes and righties to squint at a ball coming from even further away—combined with a slight uptick in velocity from the new spot, has been befuddling batters in the Cal League.
Ian McKinney out here breaking ankles. He's through six innings of shutout, hitless ball. pic.twitter.com/d0lSoCtbmP— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) July 14, 2019
After the first start he made with the new location on the rubber, McKinney saw an improvement immediately, noting in an interview with Nuts broadcaster Keaton Gillogly that “analytically, my pitches were the best they’d been all year, the tunnel out of my hand was the best it’s been.” The improvement McKinney saw would carry on through the rest of his dominant July, all borne from a change McKinney says arose when he and Marcello Jr. were “just playing around” in a bullpen session. “We said, ‘why not try it?’ It’s not going to hurt anything. So, we just gave it a whirl and it seemed to work out.”
McKinney presents the interaction as no big deal, just two technicians fooling around in the lab, but that’s not necessarily par for the course in professional baseball, where players can be resistant to change, believing that it can, actually, “hurt” something. Not so the case with McKinney, who is a student of the data, and an eager pupil with Modesto pitching coach Marcello.
“McKinney’s always searching,” says Marcello. “A guy who’s been released, trying to figure out his own career, trying to figure out what’s going to work. He was asking me questions about extension, spin direction, how can I increase spin rate. And it was kind of one of those things, like, hey, if we move you over to the left side, you’re gonna have to force that extension to really get glove-side. Maybe it’ll change your spin rate, maybe it’ll change your spin direction.
So we kinda threw one on the Rapsodo, and the numbers popped. And I was like, okay, could be a mystery, let’s throw it again. Continue to throw and pitch by pitch, it was getting better and better. We carry around a giant book that’s given to us by our analytical staff with his numbers, and what they should be, and they were getting closer and closer to that, and you’re like...is it this simple of a solution? He stands a little more open now, his hips are able to fly a little quicker, velo has ticked up. And it’s that use of technology that wasn’t around, and now kids are able to see it instantly and buy in. He knows the analytics so he was like, let’s roll with it.”
“Just because a pitch feels better, that doesn’t mean the pitches analytically do better,” says McKinney, who pays especially close attention to the “ride” (a more scientifically accurate term than “rise”) on his fastball, along with monitoring the axis of his curveball to make sure it has the right shape, and checking his release points on the fastball, curve, and changeup to make sure they all look the same coming out of his hand.
“Previously, honestly, I didn’t get too much information, but here, we’ll throw with Rapsodo in the bullpen, and each pitch I throw, I’ll know exactly how it’s moving, and then I can associate that movement with the feel of my body, so then I can correlate each pitch, I can feel my body and then my brain feels that too, and it knows exactly how to get that same pitch, to repeat it.”
Far from being intimidated by the vast amount of data available at his fingertips, McKinney marvels over it, and actively interacts with it on a daily basis. “All this information has been going such a long ways, it’s unbelievable.”
Here’s a three-pitch strikeout sequence that showcases the best of McKinney’s arsenal, with apologies to Giants prospect Heath Quinn:
Generally McKinney will locate the curve in the bottom of the zone, with some 11-5 tilt, but here he starts off the at-bat with a calculated risk that Quinn will be expecting a first pitch fastball, and instead breaks off this big looper.
Now it’s the fastball Quinn was expecting earlier, but he can’t catch up to it. This pitch doesn’t go exactly where the catcher calls for it—and command can be an issue with McKinney, specifically when he tries to paint the outside edge against a righty and the ball rises right on out of the strike zone—but he has such elite ride on his fastball he can get away with it.
Having shown Quinn a soft looping curve and a fastball outside, McKinney had a few different directions he could have gone here, but he opted to channel his inner Shang Tsung and finish him with the changeup, turning Quinn into a spectator. Quinn would end his night against McKinney 0-for-3, with three strikeouts, although he certainly wasn’t alone in wearing the K crown that night; McKinney racked up a career-high 13 strikeouts over seven innings of work. Prior to this, McKinney had thrown just one game in his career where he struck out 10+ batters, a ten-strikeout game in his first full year in pro ball; in July, he did it three times, including a complete game where he surrendered just two hits and one run.
McKinney is grateful for the advancements in technology that have helped him come this far, and also grateful to the Mariners for recognizing he’d be a good fit for the organization as a starter. He’s even grateful to the Cardinals, who had moved him to the bullpen before cutting him loose, for releasing him from the famous, but perhaps monolithic, “Cardinal Way.”
“My mentality was a lot more free. Getting released, it was a weight off my shoulders. Now I could just go out, have fun, play baseball, like I did back in high school or Little League. It felt really good. And that’s how I feel here with the Mariners. It’s very be your own person, not really like ‘we want everyone to be the same’; they want you to be an individual person, and this person to be their own individual, and each of you to better yourself.”
McKinney’s emergence is another tribute to the player development happening in the minors and the way the Mariners allow players to take ownership over their own careers rather than trying to apply a “one size fits all” model. The other day McKinney made his first start in August, pitching in the launchpad that is The Hangar at Lancaster, and gave up just one run on two hits over six innings, as he continues to make a case for a promotion to Double-A, the level that stymied him with the Cardinals. When McKinney is eventually promoted to the Texas League, he’ll likely face off against Springfield and the organization that cut him loose, where he’ll have a chance to show his old team how far he’s come on his new journey.