Back on January 16th, the Rockies made a move that probably didn't register on the Richter scale when they inked Michael McKenry to a minor league contract.
At the time, McKenry was coming off knee surgery and a rather disastrous 2013 campaign in which he posted a slash line of .217 / .262 / .348 (.610 OPS) with a -0.3 rWAR and fWAR. Being a former draft pick of the organization in 2006, it appeared as though this signing was just an attempt by the club to bring back someone familiar for a depth position.
As it turns out, McKenry proved not only adequate, but downright solid in a backup catcher role. He didn't do much during his brief call up in May when Wilin Rosario went on the DL, but after the club finally dumped Jordan Pacheco in early June, it gave McKenry a more lengthy opportunity to prove he belongs on the roster.
Right away, he went to work, posting multi hit games in nine of his next 19 starts. He was never given to full time job, but by the end of the season he had an extremely impressive batting line of .315 / .398 / .512 (.910 OPS, 141 wRC+) while appearing in 57 games and racking up 192 plate appearances.
So now the immediate question becomes, "can he post a line anywhere near that again if given more playing time?". Well, statistically speaking, there's three very good reasons he can, and three reasons he can't. First, the positives.
1) McKenry posted a walk rate of 11.5 percent this year after having a career walk percentage of just 8.1 before the 2014 season.
2) McKenry hit the ball really, really hard this summer. Different sites have different ways of measuring line drives, but they all agree McKenry hit an extreme amount of them in 2014. Fangraphs for instance has McKenry's career line drive rate at 20 percent with a 29 percent rate in 2014 and baseball reference has his career line drive rate at 21 percent with an amazing 35 percent mark in 2014.
3) McKenry said in Spring Training that he thought he learned some things about hitting and how to have a better approach at the plate while getting to watch more games as he was sidelined with his knee injury at the end of 2013. At the time it seemed like a throw away comment from a guy fighting for his life to get on a major league roster, but now it's something that may needs to be taken seriously, especially with the way McKenry posted his OPS this season (high walk / high line drive rate).
Now for the red flags.
1) The 192 plate appearances McKenry had this season is not that great of a sample size. It is for the walk percentage as that tends to normalize pretty fast, but the balls in play stuff still can't really be taken at face value.
2) McKenry finished the season with a .381 batting average on balls in play. Even with a high line drive rate, that's a high BABIP.
3) McKenry was able to post these numbers with significant rest all season long. Even if the numbers are real, how well would he be able to sustain this production in a full time role?
There is however one other detail to this puzzle that was evident and overlooked last year but seems so, so significant now when you combine it with all the surrounding data. McKenry revealed that the meniscus in his knee was already partially torn before the game in Miami in July which ended his season. I bring this up because on Memorial Day of 2013, McKenry still had an OPS of .798 (in a limited 19 game [15 start] sample size). So if you excuse his last 22 games (12 starts) where he posted a .407 OPS and partially tore his meniscus in there somewhere, suddenly you have a three year, 532 plate appearance sample size of a guy who's got an .818 OPS and a 118 wRC+ with a respectable walk and line drive rate over the last three seasons. It's very possible that McKenry's been an above average hitter since 2012 but nobody noticed because of his injuries in 2013.
I don't think McKenry is anywhere near as good offensively as he showed in 2014, but he doesn't need to be that good to provide the club with solid value behind the plate. If he's actually a 110 wRC+ guy, or even his career 97 wRC+ (I think he's better than that number), he's a significant part of the solution behind the plate for the 2015 Rockies.
* * * * *
Of course, if we're talking about a catcher, we also have to dive into his defense. Actually, with a catcher, defense should generally be the top and most talked about priority, but thanks to McKenry's interesting offensive profile, I'm flipping it for this piece.
Here's some quick thoughts on a few aspects of McKenry's defense.
- He's really bad at throwing runners out, both this year and for his career.
- With pitch blocking it's a mixed bag. The Fort, as he's affectionately known, isn't exactly a brick wall out there all the time, but when he's on he certainly saves his mound mates from some wild pitches.
- Most defensive metrics rank McKenry as below average in the pitch framing department. Of course, after watching years of Chris Iannetta and Wilin Rosario sink to new levels of rock bottom in this department, McKenry's below average skill here seems glorious.
- As a game caller, I like McKenry. He seems to know the hitters well, his pitchers trust him, and he always seems to be a ball of energy out on the field.
- Finally, I never know quite how much things like this are worth, but the pitching was considerably better with McKenry behind the plate (4.19 ERA) than with Rosario (5.18 ERA).
One of the biggest reasons for McKenry's success with the pitching is his connection to Tyler Matzek. McKenry drew Matzek's debut outing in which he struck out seven and walked none against Atlanta. Over the rest of June and July, Matzek would appear in three games with Wilin Rosario behind the plate instead and give up nine runs in eleven innings.
McKenry would get all the rest of the Matzek starts and by season's end, Matzek had a 3.75 ERA when pitching to McKenry. It would be a leap at this point to claim Matzek has success BECAUSE McKenry's back there, but we do know that for one reason or another, Matzek feels comfortable and pitches well when McKenry is his battery mate. It could be nothing, or it could be the start of a very valuable pairing.
2014 Grade: B+
He did more than we ever could have expected when the Rockies signed him last January, but a caught stealing rate under 20 percent coupled with him being behind the plate for two of the most embarrassing plays of the entire season prevent him from getting into the "A" range.
What to expect in 2015
I want McKenry on this team in 2015. While there's certainly flaws in his game, he seems to be generally underrated and a better option than anything else the Rockies are realistically going to find out there.
McKenry's only entering his first year of arbitration and I might even attempt to ink him to a two year deal now if the terms are right for both sides.
In an ideal world, the Rockies would be able to pluck Alex Avila out of Detroit (although I don't think that's going to happen at a reasonable price) and have him split time with McKenry. The club could then move Rosario completely out of the catching picture, which leaves them with all sorts of options as they could trade Rosario, have him be part of a killer platoon at first with Morneau (probably too expensive), or trade Morneau while his value is high and try a Rosario / Ben Paulsen platoon at first.
In reality though, it's likely McKenry and slim pickings behind him, which begs the question ..... Just how many games can the Rockies reasonably get out of McKenry next season with decent production?