When the Pirates acquired Mike McKenry last June, I was a little bit puzzled. The Pirates really needed a catcher at that point in the season and McKenry seemed like a decent acquisition. He hit for some power in the low minors, though he was old for his levels, and he showed pretty decent patience through his whole minor league career and his defensive reputation was good. I didn’t think he’d be Matt Wieters or anything, but it seemed to me like the Red Sox were just handing the Pirates a catcher that had a decent shot at being a useful Major League player.
Having watched quite a bit of Triple-A baseball over the last few years and having seen guys like Steve Pearce and John Bowker move through the Pirates’ system, I also knew that there are plenty of players that seem like successful Triple-A players that should have a shot at some kind of big league success and most of them just don’t. The teams usually do a pretty decent job of identifying these players, though Garrett Joneses do slip through the cracks every now and again. When I wrote my first post about McKenry, I did so with that knowledge in mind and so I hedged my bets pretty hard when I wrote about the acquisition. Then McKenry made his debut. I still remember seeing him step in front of home plate to give infield instructions with Mike Pelfrey at the plate and doing a triple take. Pelfrey is 6’7″, so most players look short next to him. McKenry, though, looked positively liliputian next to him.
For the rest of 2011, I was pretty hard on McKenry. Pirate fans took a strong liking to him after his mammoth home run off of Carlos Marmol, but there really wasn’t any point in the season that he seemed like a good hitter. He didn’t even seem like a potentially good hitter; he hit .222/.276/.322, he only homered once other than the blast off of Marmol, he didn’t draw walks or hit for power, he struck out in almost a quarter of his plate appearances. In my quest to rid the internet of bad, lazy generalizations I spent quite a bit of time harping on McKenry’s badness. I’ve written about this in the past; prior to this season, being a Pirate fan so very rarely allows you to live in the moment. I spend much of my time trying to determine players’ “true talent” levels, if you will. I don’t like to get my hopes up for hot streaks that aren’t sustainable, or to spend much time thinking about players that don’t have futures with the team.
McKenry seemed to fit that bill for a long time. When Rod Barajas hurt his knee earlier this year, the Pirates called Eric Fryer up and even though Fryer had been awful at Indianapolis, it was hard not to wonder if the Pirates wanted him to take McKenry’s place with McKenry hitting just .167/.273/.348. With Barajas ailing, McKenry played almost all of 10 of the next 12 games. He homered three times and picked up 13 hits and put up a .382/.410/.735 line in those ten games. He hasn’t looked back, either. Playing more regularly since then, McKenry’s hit .375/.429/.844 in his 11 games (nine starts) since July 7th. He’s launched four more homers in that short span. His season line is up to .273/.344/.568 with 10 homers and nine doubles. There was nothing to indicate this in his first year as a Pirate, and yet somehow, here we are.
People are asking a lot now if this something McKenry can keep up. If his hot streak is an indication that he can be an every day catcher for the Pirates for the rest of this year or next year or beyond. If the sample size is big enough here to start making conclusions. It’s not. Really, McKenry’s been unbelievably hot for 21 games (18 starts) and just 74 plate appearances. That’s not enough to say anything about anything, really. You could point to his nearly Pedro Alvarez-esque strikeout rate (28.5%) as a sign of trouble to come just as easily as you can point to his ridiculous isolated power (.295). We can say that his minor league numbers indicate that he can probably be a better big league hitter than he was last year and that this hot streak might be further proof of that. That seems like a reasonable stance. I’m not really comfortable saying more than that, though.
This time, though, I’m happy to just sit back and enjoy it without nitpicking it or worrying about 2013 and beyond. I’m happy to add to the silliness of the cheesy Greg Brown nickname instead of fighting against it (in my opinion it should always be The Fort, not just Fort, even when you think the object isn’t necessary; for example, “Great game, The Fort!”). There are a lot of weird and fun and awesome things that have happened to get this Pirate team to 60-44. Mike McKenry is one of them.