Badin grad chasing MLB dream

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Pittsburgh Pirates prospect and Badin grad Brett McKinney

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

It’s all about the colors, and Brett McKinney is adapting.

Raised in Cincinnati Reds country and now pitching in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, McKinney is still coming to terms with black-and-gold uniforms.

“I’ve never looked good in black and gold,” he said with a laugh. “I’m learning. Being a Pirates fan, supporting the guys up top, it was tough to get used to. But it’s getting easier.”

The 2009 Badin High School graduate and former Ohio State University standout is learning on the fly and making an impact in his second year in the minor leagues.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound right-hander is a member of the Class A West Virginia Power, playing just over 200 miles away from home in Charleston’s Appalachian Power Park.

How’s he doing? Well, McKinney leads the Power in earned run average with a 2.27 mark through Thursday’s games. He’s 2-3 with three saves in 28 appearances out of the bullpen, totaling 38 strikeouts and 15 walks in 35.2 innings.

“I’ve done a lot of late-game work, anywhere from the seventh to the ninth inning,” McKinney said. “I have no problem with that.

“I like the pressure at the end of the game. I don’t see myself closing in the future. If it’s setting somebody up or throwing the ninth, I can throw three or four times in a week. It gives me more control.”

Power manager Michael Ryan is a big McKinney fan.

“He’s our leader, no question, by far,” Ryan said. “He’s someone that I trust dearly. His teammates flock to him. They look at him as a leader. They see what he does during the day, how he goes about his business and competes during the games. People want to follow that.

“Our organization is big on work ethic and being a leader, and he’s a guy that will do anything asked of him. Guys like that make it to the major leagues. He’s going to pitch in the big leagues — that’s my opinion. He has what it takes to get there. It’s just up to him.”

Making a change

McKinney, a 19th-round draft pick after a four-year career at OSU, pitched for the Jamestown Jammers in the New York-Penn League last year. That’s the Class A short-season level, the lowest rung of A-ball.

He was 1-0 with 10 saves and a 3.45 ERA in Jamestown and went to spring training this year feeling good about his prospects. Outside of a minor knee injury, the spring went fine, and the Pirates sent him to Charleston.

That’s where pitching coach Jeff Johnson, seeing him pitch at length for the first time, came up with the idea that McKinney’s delivery needed to be tweaked.

Johnson said he was looking for more rhythm between his arm and the rest of his body.

“It’s a little hard to explain, but basically I was looking for a little more whip,” Johnson said. “He was trying to power some things downhill and was fighting through it. The new delivery has increased his velo.”

McKinney said he hasn’t totally grasped the change yet, but he’s getting there. He feels it’s a switch for the better.

“The only thing you might be able to tell is my arm slot’s a little bit lower,” McKinney said. “For the most part, it’s just allowed my hips and everything to work how they naturally are supposed to. It’s probably the best move I’ve made in my pitching career as far as mechanics.”

He’s been clocked in the 96-mph range, though McKinney said he’s consistently 91 to 93. He’s keeping things simple with three pitches: fastball, slider and changeup.

“It’s been a good year, an interesting year,” McKinney said. “I didn’t necessarily know I would have the best ERA on the team at this point in the season, but I expected to have more good outings than bad ones.”

Baseball as a job

He’s been playing the game most of his life. Now it’s his job, day after day, week after week. It wasn’t an everyday thing at Badin or Ohio State. Now it is.

“Having to show up at the field every day with the same attitude and energy has really been tough, but it’s something I’m getting used to,” McKinney said. “The fun of playing baseball for a living right now makes the grind not as bad. The love of baseball allows me to enjoy coming to the field every day.”

He lives about 15 minutes from the park with fellow Power pitchers Cody Dickson and Buddy Borden. McKinney misses his family, but they visit from time to time, as does his fiancee, Ashley Unger. They’re getting married Oct. 10, 2015.

The looming nuptials do make him contemplate his future. At the age of 23, he’s one of the oldest pitchers on the Power roster.

“It’s funny being 23 and being an old man,” McKinney said. “That’s what they call me around here, the old man.”

His father Chuck was once a top prospect in the Reds system before suffering an elbow injury. Whenever Chuck is in town, Brett said he devours the details of day-to-day life with the Power.

“He always talks about the controllables,” Brett said. “Probably the best advice he ever gave me was, if my career ends tomorrow, can I honestly look back and say there’s nothing I wish I would’ve done differently? That was something that kind of hit hard with me, making sure that every day there was nothing I wanted to change.

“I do and I don’t have a timetable for myself. I don’t want to be the 10-year minor leaguer, but I’m also playing baseball for a living. It might not be that great of a living, but I’m not ready to go in the real world yet. I’m not ready to have the 9-to-5 job.

“I told myself after the draft that I’d give myself three years to be in Double-A. This is the second year, so hopefully everything goes as planned. Once you get into Double-A, you’re an injury or a good month away from being close.”

Life in the minors

Minor-league baseball isn’t always idyllic. Airplane is a four-letter word in the South Atlantic League, which is ironic to McKinney because he flew practically everywhere at Ohio State.

He’s three classes short of getting his sports industry degree from OSU. McKinney said that will get done, hopefully sooner than later.

“My mom won’t let me not get my degree,” said McKinney, who wants to be a college baseball coach down the road.

The next stop in the Pirates’ chain is the Class A Advanced team in Bradenton, Fla. The Double-A team is the Altoona (Pa.) Curve, and the Triple-A squad is the Indianapolis Indians.

PNC Park, of course, is the home of the Pirates.

“You want to see guys like McKinney leave, a guy that works so hard and has success,” Ryan said. “You feel like you did your job when they leave because they’re going to a higher level. That’s why we’re here.

“I could sit here and talk for five hours about Brett McKinney. He’s a true professional. I think that’s one of the greatest compliments you can give a player. He’s a pro. He stands for everything and does everything the right way.”

McKinney said he’ll keep plugging away because the fire’s still burning.

“I always wanted a chance to play professional baseball and see if I could live the ultimate dream of playing in the big leagues,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to keep moving up and hopefully one day play in Pittsburgh. I might actually like black and gold by then.”