Advertisement
  1. Rays

Shohei Ohtani went down. On to baseball’s next best two-way player

Published Jun. 9, 2018|Updated Jun. 10, 2018

PORT CHARLOTTE — Baseball's best two-way player, the sensational Shohei Ohtani, has been placed on the disabled list by the Angels because of a sprain to his ulnar collateral ligament. Tommy John surgery might very well be in his future. It was nice while it lasted.

On to baseball's second-best two-way player

Brendan McKay, you're up.

RELATED: More from Martin Fennelly

I glanced at McKay's biography in the high-A Charlotte Stone Crabs media guide. After detailing the 23-year-old's prodigious pitching and hitting exploits at Louisville, which led the Rays to take him fourth overall in last year's draft, the guide noted that McKay "achieved an undergraduate degree in operations and research engineering from Cornell and a master's in management studies from Duke."

"When I read that, I said, 'Really?'" said Bruce McKay, Brendan's father.

No. Not really. It was a harmless mistake. That particular bio information belonged to a player named McAfee, who is no longer with Charlotte.

"I'm rolling with it," McKay said, smiling softly. "Cornell and Duke. Got it."

RELATED: More Rays coverage

As if his resume needs embellishing, like the story needs to be more supersized.

Meet the Rays' quiet, but confident two-way star. The New York Times was just down to do a story. You can catch McKay, all of him, when Charlotte visits Dunedin for a four-game series this week. He is slated to pitch Monday, DH Tuesday, play first base Wednesday and be off Thursday.

Got all that? If it rains, I think he'll help with the tarp.

The 6-foot-2, 212-pound McKay is a head-turning talent. It's the grand experiment, typical Rays stuff, though McKay's left arm (5-2 with a 1.93 ERA in 14 career starts) is at present well ahead of his left-handed swing (six homers, 47 RBIs and a .235 average). But McKay, who received a whopping $7 million signing bonus, has no plans to abandon his two-way game. Nor do the Rays.

Indeed, the club used this year's draft to choose another two-way player, Tanner Dodson, who played centerfield and was a reliever at Cal. He'd like to keep doing that, and McKay is no small reason why.

"He's kind of an inspiration," Dodson said. "I mean, he's doing it."

Then there's Ohtani, who was asked about McKay by Tampa Bay Times baseball writer Marc Topkin when the Rays were in Anaheim last month.

"I've heard of his name, but I've ever actually seen him play before so it's hard to give him any type of advice,'' Ohtani said. "But I would like to talk to him and have a conversation. I'm sure I could learn a lot from how he thinks about doing both ways."

McKay said Ohtani hasn't contacted him.

"Not at all," McKay said. Another dry smile. "But I wouldn't hate it. Do I get a translator?"

In any language, what the low-key McKay is trying to do is remarkable in its scope and difficulty. A lot of baseball players do double duty in high school and college, but most two-ways fall by the wayside in the pros, often getting locked into one position by narrow minds in front offices.

Hunter Greene, a high school pitcher/shortstop picked by the Cincinnati Reds two spots ahead of McKay in the 2017 draft, is now just a pitcher. It happens. One skill zips ahead of the other and that's that. And there is wear and tear, as might be the case with Ohtani. His UCL pain could shoot down the two-way deal for everyone.

But McKay likes the mention of another two-way star, an outfielder/pitcher for the Red Sox.

Babe Ruth.

"A familiar name," McKay said.

McKay and the Rays might be the perfect confluence. The organization that made defensive shifts part of daily baseball life, and that is now using relievers as starters, might be just the place for this double-threat experiment. It drafted McKay with exactly that in mind. No gimmick.

"We're not afraid to try different things,' Rays minor-league pitching coordinator Dewey Robinson said. "We have to, to compete with the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays. We have to look for an edge. This is an edge."

"It started with 'Why not?' " Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Erik Neander said. "Brendan has taken it from there."

The Rays might have found the ideal prototype in McKay, who was named national college player of the year in 2017 at Louisville. In his career, he went 32-10 with a 2.23 ERA with 391 strikeouts in 319 innings while hitting 32 homers with 132 RBIs. His transition to the minors hasn't been easy, but his approach remains the same. On the mound, he pounds the zone (85 strikeouts in the minors, just eight walks) with a fastball that can top 95 mph.

"On my end of it, he pitches so effortlessly," Charlotte pitching coach Steve "Doc" Watson said. "His delivery is extremely simple. His ability, it's almost (Greg) Maddux-like, the ability to pitch and how it resolves in ending at-bats. At this level, it's extremely hard to find."

And then McKay picks up a bat.

"I couldn't imagine focusing on both pitching and hitting," Stone Crabs catcher Zac Law said. "I've never seen anything like it, in pro ball, at least."

"I think it adds a lot to a team when you've got an extra bat and an extra arm," McKay said.

If the Rays decide otherwise, McKay is down with that.

"I'll do whatever they want," he said.

And he understands why some two-ways give up.

"I think guys don't want to waste time. And if pitching or hitting is behind, they don't want to stay at a certain level waiting for one to catch up."

"It's got to time up pretty well," Neander said. "If one side races ahead, it puts pressure on the situation."

McKay is perhaps the Rays' closest-watched train. His every move, every swing, every throw, is recorded in detail. When McKay pitched for Hudson Valley last season, the team went to a six-man rotation to accommodate his schedule. So has Charlotte. It's based on the template McKay used at Louisville. He DHs on either side of his pitching starts. He has one day off a week, and when he throws on the side, he does little else that day. When he takes grounders at first base, he doesn't make throws. Coaches try to minimize the stress on that left arm.

"Let's not overtax him," Rays director of minor-league operations Mitch Lukevics said. "How about cutoffs and relays? We can change things around and maybe we can protect him somewhat. Ohtani is older. In Japan he went through those formative stages before he came here."

"The thing that stands out for me about Brendan is that if this is going to work out for anybody, it's going to work out for him because of his temperament, his personality and his approach to everything," Robinson said. "He doesn't get flustered at all in anything."

This week in Charlotte against Dunedin was a perfect example. On Tuesday, McKay arguably had the worst outing of his professional career. One of his fastballs was driven over the wall for a grand slam. He was lifted in the fourth inning and took the loss.

"I was upset until 11, 12 o'clock last night," McKay said the next day. "I just sat in bed. But I got up and played some video games with Zac and a couple of other guys and kind of let things go. I got up this morning, and I was ready to go."

In the game that night, McKay, the DH, smashed a fastball deep into the Charlotte bullpen for his first homer in high A. You get to bounce back like that when you're a two-way threat. Superman presumably then went home and played more video games.

"He's not going to give you a lot of words," Bruce McKay said. "He's been that way since he was little. We worried about him in high school, with the media, just because he didn't say a lot, one- or two-word answers."

McKay grew up in Darlington, Pa., northwest of Pittsburgh. His father is a remodeling contractor, and his mother is a bank teller. His favorite meal is a burrito bowl at Chipotle. With some of his signing bonus, he bought two computers, one for himself and one for his girlfriend, former Louisville soccer player Alison Price. He took their families on vacation to Atlantis. He bought a car for his mother, Kim. Bought himself car, too, a gray Charger Hellcat, something straight out of The Fast and the Furious.

"I always tell him, set your cruise control so you don't get a ticket," Bruce McKay said.

Life is going very fast. If McKay progresses this season, he could reach Double A or higher. Understand: Wherever he goes, he isn't looking to be the story or be an inspiration, even if Tanner Dodson is inspired. He's just doing what he does because he doesn't know another way.

Okay, he does have advice for Dodson.

"Just love it, embrace it," McKay said. "It's going to be rough, but embrace it."

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

Advertisement

This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge