Orioles outfield prospect Ryan McKenna believes his breakout 2018 season came about as a result of taking care of the little things. He put in the work in the cage, listened to his coaches, and worked on striking out less and using his speed more with grounders and fewer fly balls.
He also dealt with some adversity and overcame it. After batting .377/.467/.556 in 67 games for Single-A Frederick, the 21-year-old McKenna lost well over 100 points on his average when he moved to Double-A Bowie. With the Baysox in 60 games, he hit .239/.341/.338. That adds up to a year with a .315 average at two levels.
He then followed that up producing a strong line in 17 games in the Arizona Fall League. For Glendale, the right-handed hitting center fielder batted .344/.474/.590 and his OPS of 1.064 rated second in a league filled with top prospects from around baseball. Last week, McKenna was named to the AFL’s Top Prospects Team.
McKenna had hit .256 for Single-A Delmarva in 2017, so his 2018 numbers were unexpected based off that season. But he put up stats impressive enough to end the year ranked as the Orioles’ No. 8 prospect per Baseball America and No. 12 according to MLBPipline.com.
One reason for his improvement last year was a simple adjustment that produced big results. He watched a Hall of Famer interviewed on MLB Network and decided to abandon his stride into the baseball for a toe tap as pitches were on the way to the plate. He tried it out one day last winter and took to it quickly.
“Last offseason, I saw Chipper Jones and that really resonated with me when he had an interview on MLB Network,” McKenna said. “I love to watch big leaguers’ swings. Because of the experience and just the little things that go into it.
“If you listen to J.D. Martinez talk about swings for five minutes, you’ll learn so much, it’s insane. So I saw Chipper Jones and how his dad explained something to him. He felt Chipper, he was getting anxious and out early on the fastball. So he just came up with the idea, to have him use a toe tap for the timing with the pitcher and the rhythm of it. That resonated with me and I thought I could apply that well and it worked well for me this season.
“I think it allows you to see the ball a bit deeper and earlier out of the guy’s hand. It gives you some rhythm, so you are not stationary. Everyone’s swing is different, but for me it just felt right. I’m glad that I applied it and the coaching staff was supportive of it.”
For being such a cerebral player, McKenna admits he doesn’t pore over stats or data when analyzing his own game.
“Honestly, for me, it’s just kind of the feel of the game,” he said. “That will translate. Like you have to have the feel of the game and know who is on the mound. If we are facing a sinkerballer, for instance, I’ll try to get him to bring the ball up and get one I can square up with that line drive swing. You have to be aware of where the defense is playing you. You don’t always have to worry about the numbers. If you are squaring up the ball, you are doing something right, no matter the outcome.”
Hoping to get a spring training invite for 2019, McKenna made a mature decision to spend this winter in Florida and not back in his home state of Maine.
“My goal is always to make the big league club and help have a positive impact - not only on the field but in the clubhouse and provide a positive attitude every day,” he said. “Nothing changes for next year. I plan on having a good year and hopefully be making that positive impact.
“I hope to be in big league spring training. I’m really looking forward to this next year. Just hope to pick up where I left off in Arizona and keep going, keep moving forward.”
During the Orioles instructional league in September, a team deep in young outfielders took a look at McKenna briefly at second base. But it appears he will remain an outfielder next season and he’s solid in center. MLBPipeline.com rates McKenna a 50 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale for both his arm and defense overall.
“Honestly, whatever the organization needs. I’ve played most of my games in the minors in center field, so that is probably where I feel most comfortable,” he said. “But right and left and wherever they want to have me in the future is more than OK for me. I’ll work hard to be a good defender at any position where they put me.”