During his three years as the Orioles’ manager, Brandon Hyde has seen his share of pitchers ride the so-called Norfolk Shuttle, moving back and forth between Triple-A and the majors. But on the position player side, Hyde’s time hadn’t yet included a prospect experiencing what Ryan McKenna has.
An outfielder Baseball America ranks 25th among Baltimore’s top prospects, McKenna, 24, was optioned to the minor leagues for the fifth time this season Tuesday. At the time, Hyde described it as a “tough decision,” saying that although McKenna’s numbers aren’t overly impressive, he likes the type of player he is and can be.
“He’s really helped us in a lot of ways,” Hyde said then. “The offensive numbers might not stand out, but I think he’s been taking really good at-bats in inconsistent playing time. Love the defense that he gives us, the baserunning, the speed he has on the bases. He’s becoming a good baseball player.
“Hopefully, we’ll see him back up here soon.”
It wasn’t in the manner Hyde wanted, but the next day, McKenna returned; outfielder Anthony Santander and starting pitcher Keegan Akin were put on the COVID-19 injured list. It marked the sixth time McKenna has been promoted this season, with the moves often tied to the health of the Orioles’ primary outfielders.
But despite the impression he’s left on Hyde, McKenna hadn’t done much to make an impact statistically. He entered Sunday’s series finale with the Washington Nationals batting .167/.270/.205 while playing all three outfield spots, plus a strange infield cameo in the 10th inning of the Orioles’ final home game of the first half.
“Obviously, a little bit of a learning experience here at the big league level,” McKenna told The Baltimore Sun this weekend. “But I feel like I’ve stayed confident, through and through, never wavered from what I know I’m able to do.”
Sunday, he homered to dead center at Camden Yards, the first home run of his major league career. Two innings earlier, he overcame some miscommunication with shortstop Pat Valaika to make a diving catch in left field.
In the bottom of the ninth with the potential tying run at first against Nationals left-hander Brad Hand — who Hyde has known for a decade and called “one of the elite closers in our game” — McKenna singled the other way. A walk and game-tying sacrifice fly sent him to third base. McKenna, who by Statcast’s sprint speed is the fastest player on the Orioles, then broke for home on a groundball to third, sliding to score the winning run and give Baltimore a three-game sweep over Washington at Camden Yards for the first time since 2010.
“It’s fun to watch a young player continue to get better,” Hyde said. “Mac’s opening eyes, just because this guy has hardly played in Triple-A and didn’t play much last year at all and is holding his own.”
McKenna was added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster after the 2019 season along with pitchers Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann, all of whom made their debuts during 2020. But amid a season shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic, McKenna spent the year at the Orioles’ alternate training site in Bowie, where he had put up a .234/.327/.357 batting line in the previous year and a half with the Double-A Baysox.
He started this season at the alternate site again before the Orioles called on him early when Austin Hays suffered a right hamstring strain. McKenna was sent back about two weeks later when Hays was activated, only to be promoted the next day after Santander sprained his left ankle. When the Orioles felt they needed some infield coverage a few days later, he was optioned, eventually made his Triple-A debut and returned about two weeks after. That stay in the majors again lasted less than a fortnight with Santander activated, but Hays strained his other hamstring within the week. Once Hays was ruled healthy, McKenna returned to the minors and put together a strong stretch for the Tides, slugging .596 with four home runs in 12 games to earn another call-up.
That stint lasted nearly a month before the Orioles determined this week Hays and Santander had finally moved past the lingering effects of their lower body injuries, meaning the club no longer needed to carry an extra outfielder. McKenna hadn’t left Florida, where the Orioles were playing the Tampa Bay Rays, when news came that Baltimore needed him to stick around.
McKenna said the key to managing the constant roster shuffling is “to find a rhythm where you can,” which he felt he had done with the Tides and was still striving to do in the majors. Perhaps Sunday was the start of the player Hyde believes he can be beginning to take shape at the highest level.
“I don’t feel like I was unprepared or am unprepared,” McKenna said. “It’s just going through it and gaining confidence by experience, which a lot of guys, pretty much every guy goes through. Even Mike Trout was sent down at one point, and look at him now, so it’s definitely a learning process, but I feel ready.”
What’s to come?
The Miami Marlins make their first visit to Camden Yards since last season’s strange series. After the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak caused a shuffling of schedules, they came to Baltimore for four games, winning them all and playing two of them as the home team. The Orioles will bat second in Tuesday and Wednesday’s contests.
The Orioles then visit Detroit for four games. The Tigers are amid a rebuild of their own, but one that is already beginning to pay dividends at the major league level; they’ve had a winning record each month since April.
What was good?
Arguably no pitcher had a worse first half than Matt Harvey. His 7.70 ERA was more than a full run worse than anyone else who threw at least 70 innings, while his .320 batting average against was also the highest.
“Guy’s been through a lot,” Hyde said. “He had a first half that he was disappointed in. But he’s pitched for a long time with injury stuff, and then didn’t pitch [much] last year, so I think that there was a wall that he hit, too.”
There were indicators that some of that was bad luck; no pitcher had a larger gap between his ERA and Fielding Independent Pitching — an ERA-like metric that evaluates pitchers on only events they have more control over such as strikeouts and home runs — while no pitcher had a worse defense behind him based on Statcast’s Outs Above Average.
Perhaps that luck is beginning to turn. Harvey has pitched 12 scoreless innings in the second half, throwing six one-hit frames against the Nationals on Saturday.
As Harvey’s turnaround has made him a dark horse trade candidate ahead of this week’s deadline, a more logical piece to be dealt showed off his trademark volatility.
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Hyde has been searching for a clear closer most of the year, and he gave left-hander Tanner Scott a chance to secure a series victory against the Tampa Bay Rays, but Scott allowed three hits and a free pass as the Rays walked off. He bounced back by retiring all four Nationals he faced with two strikeouts in a setup outing Friday, then put himself in trouble by hitting two batters Saturday. Hyde said afterward “you kind of have to ride the wave” when it comes to Scott, who balances spells of lacking control with wipeout stuff. It’s possible contenders won’t be interested in going surfing.
On the farm
Robert Neustrom, an outfielder the Orioles drafted in the fifth round 2018, was unspectacular across three levels in his first full professional season in 2019. But after a lost 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic, he’s beginning to look like a player who could potentially make an impact.
He posted an OPS of .957 from June on with Double-A Bowie, and this week was his first with Norfolk. He recorded hits in five of his first six games with the Tides with two home runs, including an inside-the-parker Sunday, and batted .300/.391/.650.
Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.
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