It is seldom that a collegiate head coach wants his Friday night starter to lead the team in runs and walks as well as be tied for the team lead in home runs.
But it is also seldom that a head coach has a player like Brendan McKay burst onto the scene and by many projections, be selected as one of the top three picks in next week’s MLB Draft. Minnesota, Cincinnati (WOO!!!) and San Diego have the top three picks, and it is a near certainty that McKay will be taken by one of those three teams and if not, shortly thereafter.
Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell has been able to tap into McKay’s skillset as a hitter and pitcher the past few years. McKay won the John Olerud Award Two-Way Player of the Year Award in 2015 (as a freshman) and then again in 2016. He also locked up the ACC Player of the Year for 2017 as well as Collegiate Baseball newspaper’s National Player of the Year. And unsurprisingly, he is a finalist again this year for the John Olerud Award.
The junior, lefty from Darlington, Pennsylvania led the Louisville pitching staff with a team high 97.1 IP. Going into the Super Regional this weekend, he has posted a 2.91 ERA and a .178 opponent BA. Combine that with 33 walks and 131 strikeouts, and it’s hard to ignore McKay’s potential on the mound.
In the postseason, he pitched Louisville to a win over Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament and Oklahoma in the second game of the Louisville Regional. McKay will lead his team into the Super Regional on Friday where the Cardinals will take on intra-state rival Kentucky. On Tuesday, McDonnell announced that McKay will start either Game One or Two in a best-of-three series against Kentucky, with the winner going to Omaha.
While Japanese star Shohei Otani will gain the most attention from big league clubs when he posts, McKay’s story may be a little more intriguing. His patience at the plate – 45 walks – and a slash line of .356/.476/.683 would seem to be an absolute waste if he never steps in the batter’s box.
So, the question remains: will McKay pitch or hit in the pros? Or will he – can he – do both?
On days he doesn’t pitch, McKay plays first base or is the DH for Louisville. The fact that minor league clubs use the DH more often (it is a constant in Rookie and Single-A leagues) helps his case to at least start off doing both after he is drafted.
Those closest to the Louisville baseball program have stated that they have always seen McKay more as a pitcher. But his numbers at the plate suggest that at the very least, he should be given a shot to hit as well. After all, on a minor league roster, would he really be a liability in the lineup on days he doesn’t pitch? That’s something team executives will have to determine, but McDonnell has made it work in perhaps the best baseball conference in the nation and has his team in the Super Regionals for the fifth straight season.
Then, this begs the question: which part of McKay’s game has the higher ceiling: hitting or pitching? The answer to that question may steer team executives in the direction they want to see his game progress through their system.
If only one must be chosen, it may be pitching, as quality, left-handed starters are not exactly a dime-a-dozen in the big leagues.
But then he is a left-handed power bat who is patient and has a high OBP.
But then he can also pitch.
No matter who selects him on Monday, there is no question that the two-way star’s pro career will be one to watch. Players like McKay don’t come around often, and when they do, it may be best to enjoy the ride and allow his talents to come to the surface as he progresses through the minor leagues.