Brett McKinney knows this: The baseball gods are a fickle bunch.
He has reached the Double-A level of minor league ball, landing here in the hills of central Pennsylvania with the Altoona Curve.
His rise through the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization has been strong, particularly for a 19th-round draft pick. But it hasn’t been all smiles and fist bumps for the 2009 Badin High School graduate.
Which brings him to his pitching statistics in Altoona.
“It’s probably the worst year that I’ve had just from a numbers standpoint,” McKinney said. “But it’s probably the best that my actual stuff has been in my career. The game of baseball has humbled me tremendously with breaks and bad breaks. I’ve been a little unlucky, but that’s baseball. I’ve still got to improve. I’ve still got to pitch better.”
On the move
Altoona is McKinney’s fourth stop in three seasons since signing with Pittsburgh out of Ohio State.
The right-hander started 2015 where he finished 2014, in high Single-A ball in Bradenton, Fla. He got off to a slow start there this season, but went 0-2 with a 3.42 earned run average in 20 relief appearances, notching 23 strikeouts in 23.2 innings.
In early June, he was promoted to Altoona.
“It’s always a pleasant surprise,” McKinney said. “I felt like I was throwing well enough to get the call-up, but you never know. They don’t have a ton invested in me financially, so I didn’t know where I was really fitting in at the time. I think my dad cried a little bit when I called him. It was nice.”
So he headed north to play for the Curve in the Eastern League. On June 12, McKinney made his Double-A debut at home against New Hampshire.
It didn’t go so well.
He pitched 1.2 innings out of the bullpen and gave up eight runs, all earned, and a pair of home runs. By night’s end, his ERA was 43.20.
“I think I got the first guy out, then I gave up a couple hits, and then it was just like everything got real fast on me,” McKinney recalled. “It was like, ‘Gosh, this is a whole different animal.’
“Instead of slowing things down, I started trying to do more. The ball got up, and guys here don’t miss bad pitches. It doesn’t matter how hard you’re throwing. If it’s up and over the plate, it’s going to get hit well.”
He admitted that he might have been feeling a little too good about his promotion.
“It’s hard not to,” McKinney said. “I was pitching really well in Florida when I got called up, but the goal is not to get to Double-A. The goal is to get to the big leagues. There for a couple days I kind of let off the gas pedal, but luckily I got put back in my place pretty quickly.”
The first outing could’ve had a debilitating effect on McKinney. Instead, he simply went back to work.
“My next outing was in Akron,” he said. “I came in and struck out the side in the 13th. I go back out for the 14th and ended up giving up a run to lose the game, but it was like, ‘All right, I belong here. I’ve got good-enough stuff.’ That allowed me to get back that encouragement of letting the work take care of itself instead of trying to be comfortable and just thinking it’s going to be easy.”
Deception in #s
McKinney is 0-2 with a 9.56 ERA in 12 appearances in Altoona (through Friday’s games). He picked up his first save Wednesday night. He’s got 19 strikeouts in 16 innings.
The ERA is distasteful, but not all that meaningful. Two tough outings — he gave up five runs in two-thirds of an inning July 21 — can’t outshine the successes he’s had.
“It’s pretty normal that a guy struggles in his first outing, especially with the jump from high-A to Double-A,” Altoona pitching coach Justin Meccage said. “The energy’s high, nerves are high, and it’s a big jump. But ever since then he’s settled in nicely.
“At the end of the year, you look at the overall package. That ERA, especially for a short sample size, doesn’t mean a whole lot at this point. I love his stuff. It’s a really good fastball. At times, it can be a really devastating slider. It’s just a matter of consistency at this point, which it is for most guys at this level.”
Curve manager Tom Prince said McKinney’s debut has been forgotten.
“That’s the game of baseball,” Prince said. “That’s one of those things we don’t want to happen to anybody. It just snowballed real quick on him, but he handled it really well. It didn’t bother him a bit.”
McKinney loves the way he’s throwing the ball. He’s consistently in the 94-96 range, hitting 97 practically every day. His slider is very effective. He’s only issued seven walks.
“Probably 95 percent of the time it’s a four-seam fastball and a slider,” McKinney said. “I’ll throw in a two-seam sinker and occasional changeup, but the fastball is the strength. The slider is still the out pitch.”
Adding several miles per hour to his fastball has been a product of several things.
No. 1, he’s healthy and had an excellent offseason. No. 2, he’s tweaked his delivery and gone back to some of the things he used in high school and college.
“It was probably the best offseason I’ve had,” said McKinney, who underwent two surgeries on his right knee during his days at OSU. “I was dragging my dad to Badin at 5 o’clock every morning to work out and throw with me.
“My coaches dropped my arm slot a little bit last year and tried to make me a little bit more rotational. I never got comfortable with it. I had a meeting with our pitching coach down in Florida, and he just said to go back to doing what was comfortable.
“I’m still probably lower than I was in high school and college, but I’m a little higher than I was last year. It’s about getting my leg up, separating on time and just letting my arm do what it’s going to do and not just trying to force what the slot is going to be.”
Meccage said McKinney’s delivery to the plate has been quickened since he arrived in Altoona.
“He was very slow to the plate when he got here, so guys were running off him,” Meccage said. “So we quickened up his delivery a little bit with runners on base, then we added some rhythm in his hands with his lift leg to allow for some athleticism and some consistency to come out.”
There is no true closer on the Curve staff. Meccage said the goal is to put pitchers in different situations to see how they react.
McKinney is happy to be a reliever and figures he’ll be in that role the rest of his career. He said being a starter in college was physically draining.
“I think the package is there,” Meccage said. “At the lower levels, you can get away with a good fastball and show a slider at times. Ninety-six doesn’t really faze guys at the upper levels, so it’s about commanding that fastball and having that ability to throw the slider for a strike.
“I like his mentality too. He’s a bulldog out there. He likes to pitch in the ninth inning, which not everybody likes to do and not everybody’s good at, especially as you progress the ladder.”
Eye on the future
McKinney said last year that he had a general blueprint for his baseball career. He wanted to be in Double-A ball within three years, and he’s here.
The major leagues aren’t that far away now. McKinney faces guys with major-league experience regularly. Being that close, he said a timetable isn’t such a big deal now.
“Right now, I’m a few injuries away from being in Triple-A and maybe the big leagues,” said McKinney, who will marry Ashley Unger on Oct. 10. “As long as I continue to enjoy playing and my family’s happy and my fiancee keeps supporting me, I’ll probably keep doing it for a little bit and see what happens.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is to make it to Pittsburgh. Another promotion would get him much closer to home — the Indianapolis Indians are the Pirates’ Triple-A team.
Prince believes McKinney has a bright future in this organization.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Prince said. “He’s got a great arm. The makeup’s unbelievable, through the roof. He’s going to compete every time he takes the mound.”
McKinney said he isn’t taking anything for granted. He’s enjoying his time with the Curve, one of the best teams in the Eastern League. He likes the guys he’s playing with.
“I’m still loving it. I get to play a game for a living, so you can’t really complain too much,” McKinney said. “I try as hard as I can to not really worry about the stuff I have no say in. You either play your way to where you want to be or you play your way out. Either way, it kind of takes care of itself.”
Brett McKinney file
Size: 6-foot-2, 225 pounds
High school: Badin
College: Ohio State
Draft: 19th round, Pittsburgh, 2013
Minor league career: 5-8 record, 24 saves, 3.73 earned run average, 118.1 innings, 117 strikeouts, 43 walks (through Friday’s games)