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Baltimore Orioles

Oriole of the Day: Carrying Triple-A success to majors could create regular role for Ryan McKenna

Under other circumstances, Tuesday would have marked the day Orioles pitchers and catchers reported to Sarasota, Florida, to begin preparations for the 2022 season.

Instead, with the league’s lockout of players continuing as the two sides negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, that benchmark passed without the season feeling any closer, and potentially more will follow. Until significant progress is made between the owners and the players’ union, it’s fair to wonder whether the Orioles’ March 31 Opening Day matchup with the Toronto Blue Jays will take place as scheduled.

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What can be assured, though, is the continuation of Oriole of the Day, The Baltimore Sun’s series evaluating each member of Baltimore’s 40-man roster. Next up is Ryan McKenna, who was shuttled between the minors and the majors for much of 2021 and regularly served as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner when with Baltimore. Until he’s able to reproduce the hitting success he had in the minors, that’s likely a role he’ll stay in.

Quick hits

2022 Opening Day age: 25

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2021 stats: .183/.292/.266, .559 OPS, two home runs, 37.6 K%, 12.2 BB%, minus-0.3 fWAR with the Orioles; .307/.423/.683, 1.106 OPS, 11 home runs, 26.8 K%, 17.1 BB% with Triple-A Norfolk

Under team control through: 2027

2021 in review

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Number to know: 129. That’s the difference between McKenna’s performance in Triple-A and the majors in weighted runs created plus, an all-encompassing offensive metric that accounts for league, ballpark and other factors. With the Norfolk Tides, McKenna’s wRC+ was 187, meaning he was 87% better than the average Triple-A hitter; more than 500 hitters got at least 100 plate appearances in Triple-A, and McKenna’s wRC+ was the third highest, according to FanGraphs. His major league performance, meanwhile, was 41% below average, ranking in the bottom 10% of all players.

What was good: Whether he was in the minors or the majors, McKenna took his walks. His 17.1% walk percentage with Norfolk was among Triple-A’s highest, while his 12.2% major league rate was the second best among Orioles. He consistently worked counts, leading Baltimore in pitches per plate appearances and ranking among the top 60 major leaguers in that category.

What wasn’t: Part of the reason McKenna had so many extended counts, though, was an inability to put the ball in play before that. He made contact on fewer than 70% of the strikes he swung at, the 12th lowest rate in that regard per Statcast. Only three players who had as many plate appearances as McKenna struck out more often than he did, according to FanGraphs, and he ranked among the bottom 8% in whiff rate, the percentage of swings that missed.

Part of the reason Ryan McKenna had so many extended counts and drew so many walks was an inability to put the ball in play before that. He made contact on fewer than 70% of the strikes he swung at, the 12th lowest rate in that regard per Statcast.

Looking ahead to 2022

Likely 2022 role: Depth outfielder, defensive replacement and pinch-runner.

What’s projected: Unless he’s able to bring his Triple-A hitting success to Baltimore, it’s difficult to see McKenna supplanting Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays or Anthony Santander for a starting spot in the Orioles’ outfield. Still, he was among the majors’ 25 fastest players in 2021 and led all Orioles in Statcast’s defensive success rate added, so he still can provide value in other ways. Steamer and ZiPS project his bat to improve in 2022, but not to a league-average level.

A step forward: While in the majors, McKenna was in the lineup against a left-handed starter twice as often as he was against right-handers, but despite being a right-handed hitter, he fared much better against the latter. McKenna had a .468 OPS against lefties, compared to a .635 OPS when facing right-handers. He also had reverse split in Triple-A, though he was far more successful, regardless; he hit .265 and slugged .588 off left-handers, whereas he hit .328 with a .731 slugging percentage against same-handed pitchers. Given that he’s likeliest to be in the Orioles’ lineup when a left-hander is on the mound, improving his performance against them would not only help his numbers, but also give him a better chance at regular playing time.

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Three up, three down

This series is ordered based on the WAR, as measured by FanGraphs, each member of Baltimore’s 40-man roster produced in 2021. The past three players featured in the series were Alexander Wells, Mike Baumann and Dean Kremer. The Orioles due up next are Cionel Pérez, Kelvin Gutiérrez and Jahmai Jones.


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