For CL's leading hitter, a slow grind leads to marked success
BY SAMUEL EVERS
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
ZEBULON — It’s one of the few luxuries the preps-to-pro players in professional baseball may have over the more polished four-year college players: A few extra years to figure it all out.
After three solid but not remarkable seasons biding time in Rookie and Low-A ball, it has so far come together in an eye-catching way for Frederick Keys outfielder Ryan McKenna, a breakout star of the 2018 minor league season whose quick bat was on display Tuesday night in the Carolina League All-Star Game.
McKenna, 21, who committed to Liberty University as a sophomore in high school, was drafted into Baltimore’s organization in the fourth round of the 2015 draft from St. Thomas Aquinas (N.H.) in 2015.
It was an easy choice.
“For me, it was the right journey, I believe,” he said. “The Orioles gave me a great opportunity. I was willing to take it.”
The decision four years ago brought him to Zebulon on Tuesday night, as leadoff hitter for the Northern Division. And the marked pace at the plate continued; the third pitch of the game was smacked off of Southern Division and Mudcats’ starter Cam Roegner into left-center field for a stand-up double. He scored the game’s first run three batters later.
Last season, he batted .256 in Low-A, and, in his first three seasons — he only played 10 games of Rookie Level in 2015 — he grouped together an average in the low .250s. The first half of this season has shifted his organizational trajectory.
In a league largely overshadowed by starting pitching, McKenna completed a first half with a .377 batting average, eight home runs and 37 RBI, with a 1.023 on-base plus slugging percentage.
The average is tops in the Caroline League — by 57 points. His 97 hits are tops by 17.
What changed — against greater competition — to trigger a more than 100-point rise in average?
“For a lot of guys there’s definitely that developmental period,” said McKenna, who, barring a promotion, will be back in Zebulon with the Keys from July 4-6. “You’ve got to learn as a hitter. You go from playing 20 games in a season to summer ball, which is a little bit more, but this is everyday.”
The day-to-day grind lends itself to learning opportunities; repeating the grind for three straight years lends itself to year-to-year tweaks.
A lot of this past offseason for McKenna was spent deep-diving into opponent's pitching.
“Just a lot of learning the rhythms and timing of a lot pitchers, being more in tune. On a day-to-day basis and even in-game, when a reliever comes in he’s usually way different than the starter,” said McKenna, offering some partial reason for the jump in offensive production. “Sometimes they specifically bring in a guy for your section of a lineup. I’ve really focused on being in tune to that, and how all that applies to your swing, how everything you’ve done up to that point applies.”
Historically, at least, the Orioles have never been big in drafting and developing high school talent. As the Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli recently pointed out, only two such picks — Xavier Avery and LJ Hoes — have reached the major leagues. Before the season started, most prospect lists didn’t have McKenna in the top-30 within Baltimore’s organization.
He’s at No. 29 now on MLB’s list, with a path towards the system’s upper ladder.
“That’s what it’s all about, developing and building a little bit earlier on top of what you’ve learned,” McKenna said. “Building, hopefully moving up the ranks and achieving that ultimate goal.”
And that number — .377 — has surely upped the interview requests and congrats from back home.
“Little bit,” he said, smiling. “It’s always good to get some recognition. It’s always good to hear from the guys.”