Minor league players improve at different stages of their careers, and to different degrees. But with his massive improvement from the 2017 season to this year, Single-A Frederick center fielder Ryan McKenna has gotten everyone’s attention.
With a batting average that has gained more than 100 points and an OPS that has grown by more than 300 points, McKenna has been not just the best player on his team or one of the best in the Carolina League, but one of the best in all of minor league baseball.
McKenna is batting .377/.467/.556 with 60 runs, 18 doubles, two triples, eight homers, 37 RBIs, five steals and a 1.023 OPS. A right-handed batter and thrower, he’s hit .459 versus lefty pitchers with five homers in 61 at-bats. He’s been solid on defense and has shown a nice blend of speed with some pop on offense. For Single-A Delmarva last season - in his first year of full-season ball - McKenna hit .256/.331/.380.
The 21-year-old’s breakout year is the result of plenty of hard work and good coaching, along with a much-improved strikeout rate and a swing that has allowed him to square up the ball more consistently than he ever has.
McKenna is from Maine and played in high school at St. Thomas Aquinas in New Hampshire. The Orioles made him their fourth-round pick in 2015, when he was taken 133rd overall and signed to a slot bonus of $414,700 by then-area scout Kirk Fredriksson.
Tonight, he’ll lead a contingent of five Frederick Keys in the Carolina League All-Star game, and he could be promoted soon to Double-A Bowie, although that decision had not been made as of this past weekend.
McKenna’s .377 batting average is second highest in all of full-season minor league ball, behind only Toronto’s Double-A sensation Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is currently on the disabled list at .407. McKenna leads everyone with his OBP (the Nats’ Juan Soto is at .462) and he ranks first in the minors in hits, second in runs and seventh in OPS. He was the Orioles’ minor league Player of the Month for May, when he hit .397.
The easy first question for McKenna in a recent interview: How has he improved so much from year to year?
“I think for me the biggest difference that has made me better is the monotonous and meticulous stuff that you do away from the field,” McKenna said. “The work in the cage. The mental preparation. You prepare to face a pitcher and visualize his pitches. I think it’s the day-in-and-day-out attention to detail that has been huge for me.”
“He’s made great strides in almost every area of the game,” Orioles director of player development Brian Graham said. “His approach, offensively, is so much improved. He’s recognizing pitches. He has a better understanding of the strike zone, is using the whole field to hit and his two-strike approach has been very good. He has used the bunt as a weapon and has just done a really good job.
“He came to instructional league (last September) and worked with Jeff Manto (minor league hitting coordinator) about all things on offense and he locked some things in then. Some of that work done then has been a game-changer for him.”
Kyle Moore was McKenna’s hitting coach at Frederick this year until recently, when he was named as the manager at short season, Single-A Aberdeen. Moore said McKenna is a blend of a very smart and cerebral player with one who has plenty of raw talent to tap into.
“First of all, his makeup is unbelievable,” Moore said. “He’s a very approachable guy and is outstanding in that regard. He’s had great timing this year. He put a toe tap in, and it’s something he’s done really well. He gets in good position to hit and he’s got a really good two-strike adjustment. He’s really toolsy and can run. He puts a lot of pressure on the infielders and he’s really squared the ball up a lot this year.”
McKenna has been striking out less, hitting the ball on the ground to use his plus speed more and hitting more balls on the screws. His strikeout rate has decreased from 24.2 percent last season to 15.0. Last season he hit 37.8 percent fly balls, and that is now down to a career-low 27.1. His line drive percentage increased from 16.6 to 27.6, according to Fangraphs.
Just what did this kid do over the winter to show up ready to play to this level in 2018?
“I think the volume of the work was the same but the attentiveness to how things apply every day was the thing,” McKenna said. “Speed-work was a big part of my training, and working on bunting. Getting those extra hits when you can. Being diligent and understanding what had gotten me out in previous years and trying to counteract that. Just trying to give myself the best chance to succeed every night, and that has paid off well this year.”
McKenna has walked 37 times and fanned 45. The walk-to-strikeout ratio of 0.82 is much better than his 0.34 last year or 0.37 in 2016.
“Developing a fundamentally sound two-strike approach has been a big part of my arsenal this year,” McKenna said. “Credit to our coaches and guys like Buck Britton and Jeff Manto that I worked with that made that a priority for me. I’m a leadoff guy that tries to get on base and score runs. Just putting the ball in play is a big part of what I’m trying to do. Hitting off-speed better has also been part of my development this year. Talking to K-Mo (Moore), and he has been huge for me, too, this year.
“You learn some plate discipline mostly by failure. Just swinging at pitches that, after a while, you learn not to because you can’t hit them. Also, I made an adjustment that I made physically that allowed me to see the ball better. Just staying back and not being too anxious. Just focusing on the rhythm of the pitcher.”
Said Graham: “He’s doing great and I’m really proud of him. I give the coaching staff in Frederick credit, as well as the staff in Delmarva last year. There are a lot of guys that have really done a nice job with him.”
McKenna’s 2018 season with Frederick is actually better on the stat sheet than what we saw from both Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays in Frederick last year before both moved to Bowie. And McKenna has been controlling the strike zone better than that impressive duo as well.
Hays at Frederick in 2017 - .328/.364/.592 with .956 OPS
Mountcastle at Frederick in 2017 - .314/.343/.542 with .885 OPS
McKenna at Frederick in 2018 - .377/.467/.556 with 1.023 OPS
One scout sized up McKenna on the 20-80 scouting scale with solid-average or better tools almost across the board. He was graded a 60-runner and 55-hitter with a 50-grade on his defense and arm and 45 for power.
Will McKenna soon get a promotion to the Double-A Eastern League? It seems likely, although McKenna said he hasn’t heard that yet.
“They just said ‘Keep playing.’ I can’t control that. The Orioles have been great and I’ve had a great experience in pro ball so far. I just want to play as hard as I can, and wherever they have me the rest of the year I’m completely OK with. Just want to make some strides toward a big league career, and I’ll play wherever they want,” he said.
But if Eastern League pitchers do provide his next challenge, McKenna said he feels ready.
“Of course. I don’t think I would do anything differently. I invite the challenge to get better as a player by facing better players. That is how you learn. I look forward to that whenever that day comes. Ready to take that challenge head on,” he said.
Photos by Patrick Cavey (top) and Kyle Huson