Giving Orioles prospect Ryan McKenna a few weeks away from the game in between his breakout season in the minor leagues and his star-turn in the Arizona Fall League was really all it took for him to bust out of his late-2018 swoon.
And just as important as the time he spent in Gainesville, Fla., visiting his brother was the time he spent at the Orioles' instructional league gearing up for the AFL, the former to recharge and the latter to get some experience at second base to diversify his already-valuable defensive profile.
Taken all together, the progress McKenna has made since the Orioles' affiliates wrapped up for the offseason has been exceptional.
"The second half of the season, it's a grind," McKenna said. "You've got to mentally bring yourself every day and try to bring yourself physically to try and apply all the things you know. But I think I've been pretty diligent about having a good approach here and feeling good at the plate, feeling strong, and trying to execute my swinging mechanics as best as I can. I think applying how to manage energy and really trying to hone in on some good mechanics has served me well so far."
The McKenna who has been starring in the Arizona Fall League and won the final vote to appear in Saturday's Fall Stars game is a lot like the one that began the year at High-A Frederick and vaulted himself into the organization's top-10 prospects. He hit .377/.467/.556 with eight home runs and 18 doubles in 67 games for the Keys before he was promoted to Double-A Bowie, where he hit .239/.341/.338 with 13 extra-base hits in 60 games.
But he's been a standout in the AFL since it began in early October, and even with an 0-for-4 game Thursday, McKenna entered Friday batting .373 with five doubles, three triples and a home run for the Glendale Desert Dogs.
"I think partly I started being a little more passive in my swing, and I'm just getting back to the player I am and trying to be aggressive and swing at pitches in my zone and not let myself get carried away mentally," McKenna said. "Just being disciplined, I think, is the biggest thing. Applying that to here was awesome. You learn from everything, so it was a good experience."
A tireless student of hitting, he has fashioned himself into one of the best young bats in the Orioles' system by adapting Hall of Famer Chipper Jones' toe-tap after watching an MLB Network segment in which Jones demonstrated it, as well as stocking up on as many of the videos of home runs MLB publishes on Twitter and Instagram to see what works for the game's best hitters.
"I'm a big visual guy, so I learn from how it looks, different angles of big league swings," McKenna said. "I try to save those as much as I can and try to watch those over and over and over, try to watch my swing and see similarities and differences and try to ultimately be at that level and see what they do that has succeeded, and apply it to myself."
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The Orioles have marveled at how McKenna has improved over the years as a result. That's why there wasn't much concern when he scuffled at Bowie after such a hot start. A similar arc occurred last year for infielder Ryan Mountcastle, who was no worse off and produced all summer long at Bowie this year.
"I think throughout the start of my career, it's been a development," he said. "They talk about the process, and picking up things that help you moving forward and help you get those consistent results. A couple of those things, I always learn from not doing the greatest. Failure is a great teacher, so obviously in this game, you want to be able to hit every time, but the ultimate goal is to be an everyday contributor in the big leagues. Going through that and learning from failure throughout the way is a big part of it."
Though McKenna might be the best long-term center fielder in a system that also features Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and top prospect Yusniel Díaz, the crowded nature of the Orioles' outfield (with DJ Stewart and Trey Mancini also in that mix) means the team is going to have to get creative to fit them all in a major league lineup in the near future.
That's why McKenna trying out some second base, where he played in high school and also dabbled in after the Orioles drafted him in 2015, could open up more possibilities for the Orioles and their No. 8 prospect.
"It wasn't anything crazy," McKenna said of playing second. "The second half this season, I got some reps there, just in practice and during BP they would hit me ground balls. I just think their goal was maybe to have me potentially be able to play there. We'll see where that ends up, but I think it can't hurt, being able to play another position."