NEW YORK – Billy McKinney made his MLB debut on March 30, 2018 at the Rogers Centre. On March 31, he crashed into the left field wall and sprained the AC joint in his left shoulder. It would be his last taste of the big leagues until Saturday afternoon.
Fittingly, McKinney made his Blue Jays debut in New York, batting leadoff against his former team on a sunny Saturday where the Yankees honored their 1998 championship team. His placement atop the lineup card that day surprised him “a little bit” but he was thankful for the opportunity.
It’s been a winding road for the outfielder, a former first-round selection who had now been traded three times with just two major league games under his belt. While it means he hasn’t yet found a team that is willing to rule him untouchable, it also means that multiple teams have deemed him a player worth pinning hopes on in the future. That non-traditional path is something that McKinney recognizes, and his take was in keeping with his appreciative tone throughout the pregame media scrum.
“I guess I’ve kinda had a different path through my career, being traded a few times, but it’s been an honour to be a part of it and it’s really nice being a part of organizations that value me. So I’m really appreciative, especially to the Blue Jays for this opportunity, being here. Just looking forward to the new journey and the next chapter of my life.”
This trade did feel more unique than the previous two, when he was a prospect who would one day impact the big club’s plans. This time McKinney had earned a spot on the Opening Day roster. But after initial word of the deal it was old hat for a player who knows what it’s like to get dealt. When asked if things felt different this time with him having made his debut and been on the cusp of making the big leagues full-time, McKinney concurred.
“A little bit. Being so close to the big leagues makes it a little different because you can kind of taste it, so it’s pretty cool to be in that scenario but it’s the same aspect of packing up your stuff, meeting a new team, meeting the new guys and just getting to know your teammates. It’s all the same once it gets to that part.”
Given the Yankees’ heavy involvement in numerous trade deadline rumors it eventually dawned on McKinney that he could be part of a package going the other way, though it took some time for that feeling to settle in.
“I wasn’t thinking so but when I got scratched from one of our games in July I kind of had a feeling that day that it was going to happen and I got a text from (Brandon) Drury to ask if I’d heard anything, so that’s when I kind of had a feeling that it was going to happen.”
The Blue Jays are thought to have one long-term player currently in the outfield with Randal Grichuk, but there are question marks about the two remaining spots down the line. While Dwight Smith Jr., Anthony Alford and Dalton Pompey have all risen the ranks to suit up for the Jays in the past, it was the newcomer who got the call when Luke Maile was placed on the paternity list.
“I guess I’ve kinda had a different path through my career, being traded a few times, but it’s been an honour to be a part of it and it’s really nice being a part of organizations that value me.”
Although McKinney was the new kid on the block as he strolled into the clubhouse before Friday night’s game, Bisons bag in tow, it wasn’t all new. Sean Reid-Foley, Danny Jansen, and Tim Mayza were among the Jays to extend a welcome and greet a player that they’ve shared the field with over the last month. Having some semblance of continuity should help McKinney adjust to his new team.
“It makes it a little easier. They’ve helped me. I don’t want to be the new guy getting in the way so I just try to stay behind the scenes and get to know all the new guys. But yeah, having Danny and Sean here is really nice and they’re great players but also great people so it’s really been a joy getting to know them, being in the organization, and I’m looking forward to playing with them in the future.”
Because his time in Buffalo has coincided with the arrival of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., you can be sure the subject came up in conversation. McKinney says he’s been extremely impressed by watching Vlad but is equally impressed by how mature he is off the field, calling him “a great player and a great person” as well as a “guy you really want to root for.”
As for his own work, one thing that McKinney’s shown at the Triple-A level this year is increased power. In 2017 he’s hit 16 home runs in 306 plate appearances between Scranton and Buffalo after hitting double digits only twice in his other minor league stops: 10 in 276 plate appearances in Triple-A in 2017 and 10 in A+ as a member of the Athletics organization back in 2014. This year the power has been obvious, but it’s also come as his on-base numbers slide. Showcasing that pop is not something that McKinney has put more emphasis on, however.
“No. Me getting hurt early in the year it kind of felt like I lost my whole spring training that I worked for all offseason. In that aspect I felt like I was getting back to myself throughout the year and trying to get back to the player that I still am. I’ve had a few balls go out for me and that’s nice, I’ve also had some get caught so it’s all part of the game and I just try to hit the ball hard every day. If it goes out, great, if not it’s just part of it.”
McKinney is right to feel that way, as his walk and strikeout numbers have remained fairly consistent – it’s a batting average that’s coming in lower than ever before as a function of poor luck on batted balls which is driving the OBP dip. McKinney posted a .245 BABIP with the RailRiders in 2018 and is just at .222 in his brief stint with the Bisons after never posting a BABIP below .277 in any stop at the minor league level.
While the injuries and a bit of bad luck have slowed his momentum, McKinney has also used the opportunity to soak things in as an observer and get a sense of what it’s like for players to ply their craft at the highest level as he prepares to launch his own career as a professional at the highest level.
“You know, I sat around and watched for the last few years, just watching these guys, how they go about their business, how they work, and just how a true big leaguer goes about their business and I just try to emulate that as much as possible. I try to play my game obviously but going about things the right way is my goal.”
And for the record, McKinney has no ill will towards the Rogers Centre wall that put him on the DL and eventually landed him with the Jays.
“No, no, nah,” McKinney says through a light chuckle. “Like I said it holds a special place in my heart. Unfortunately I got hurt but thankfully I’m healthy now and I’m ready to roll and looking forward to the future.”
McKinney’s first day in a Blue Jays uniform was a mixed bag. He drew a walk but was picked off of first. He drove in two runs with a bases-loaded single but was thrown out at third trying to capitalize on an error in right field, though the misplay did allow a third run to score. It ended with a single in the ninth and more good than bad. His former standing as a top-flight prospect plus the potential for him to get significant playing time in September and beyond is something for Blue Jays fans to watch as they too look forward to the next chapter.
Lead Photo © Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports