ALTOONA, Pa. – You don’t need to be rated as a “top prospect” out of the draft to show why you can eventually help a major league club someday. Sometimes, you just need to remain consistent, have a strong mentality, and continue to put the work in during every opportunity you get. Fortunately for Alex McRae, he checks everything off of the list and has quickly turned heads of many following the Pirates farm system.
McRae’s initial promotion to Altoona was in mid-2016, and he, quite honestly, did not look like he belonged when he arrived. He put up a horrendous 10.25 ERA in his first six starts for Altoona. Opposing batters had a .388 average and 1.100 OPS against him in those starts, and there were plenty more fly balls than ground balls hit off of him.
All of a sudden, everything changed. McRae but up some of the best pitching stats in the Pirates’ minor league system down the stretch last year. In his last eight appearances beginning July 25th, McRae had a 2.23 ERA in 48.1 innings. It earned him the opportunity to be the team’s Game One starter in their lone playoff series last year.
In his first six starts of the 2017 season, he had a 1.96 ERA in 36.2 innings. He gave up four runs in seven innings this past Saturday, so that ERA went up half a point to 2.47; however, putting it all together, he has turned in a 2.35 ERA in his last 92 innings pitched.
Seeing McRae for the first time this spring, Altoona Pitching Coach Bryan Hickerson says that he has that certain “it” factor that gives him that extra edge.
“I’m seeing a guy that goes out there, is very aggressive, and has an edgy competitiveness,” Hickeson said. “He’s never satisfied with what he’s doing and where he is. He’s going to attack, attack, attack. With him, that mindset makes his stuff better.”
After the difficult start to his Double-A career, McRae said that it did take a little settling in before realizing that he belonged and that he could compete in this league. After having such a good stretch last summer, he came into this season ready to attack and be aggressive.
“Just knowing that I’ve had success and getting away from those jitters of pitching here,” McRae said about his hot start to 2017. “Being here now compared to what happened last year, I’m much more comfortable.”
You can have all of the strong mentality and competitiveness you want, but you still need to execute your pitches. McRae has done that with a heavy two-seam approach, mixed in with an improved changeup and a slider. By focusing on improving that two-seam fastball, his ground ball rate is currently over 50% for this first time over a season’s span, albeit only at 51.1%.
Also, he isn’t giving free passes to batters often with a BB/9 rate of 2.06 this season. Consistently locating in and out of the zone has been one of those improvements that has helped McRae — not walking batters and getting ahead in counts as to dictate at-bats.
Hickerson says that McRae locating his sinker to the outside corner to right-handed batters has been essential this year, because “if he can really work on nailing that pitch, he can work the rest of everything else in really well.”
Otherwise, on top of keeping that two-seamer down in the zone, his changeup is the shiny new toy that has been good for the righty this season. The changeup isn’t necessarily a new pitch to McRae, as he has needed it as a starting pitcher his whole professional career, but there wasn’t a comfort level with the pitch before. He wasn’t throwing it often in games, as he usually went with the slider as his breaking ball of choice. Now, the changeup is available to help disguise his two-seamer.
“That pitch should help hitters get off my fastball a little bit,” McRae said. “I’ve been able to get the hitter’s timing off a little bit, and that has helped get more ground balls. I have a better feel for it now than in the spring and last year.”
All of this success had earned McRae our April Pitcher of the Month honors. The one place that he can improve is with an out pitch, as his strikeout rate is down this year to 4.95 K/9. In the season opener, he struck out nine batters in five innings of work; however, he’s only struck out 15 batters in 38.2 IP since. McRae has said that he has a tendency to rush forward in his pitching motion, and staying back in his windup helps him not to elevate, especially when it comes to having two strikes on a batter.
“Once I get on top of it more, every pitch is better,” McRae said after I asked about an inning where he struck out two batters. “The slider is sharper, the two-seam sinks more, and I’m able to locate better.”
McRae acknowledged that his slider hasn’t been as sharp as it has been in the past, but he believes that continued work on that pitch will help him in the strikeout category. When push comes to shove, though, strikeouts aren’t at the top of his list of things to worry about.
“I’m not necessarily worried about the strikeouts,” McRae said, “I guess I’m more concerned about getting early contact as a sinker ball guy. That doesn’t mean that when I get to two strikes and have the chance to get somebody put away, staying back will help with the slider.”
As he continues to work on that strikeout pitch and keeping the ball on the ground as often as possible, Hickerson says that it is McRae’s mindset that led to his success so far this year, and that is something that can take you far in this game.
“He can get ahead of hitters better, and it can make his stuff better,” Hickerson said. “He has three good pitches. Honestly, it’s just that real competitive never-give-up and never-give-in mindset that plays pitch after pitch after pitch that gives him an edge.”
As things seem to be pretty crowded in the Triple-A rotation, it would make sense for McRae to spend all of 2017 in Altoona; however, he would most likely be at the top of the list of starters to go up if there is a need. He profiles more as a middle relief or long man option in the majors, but continued development in a strikeout pitch would only improve his chances of remaining in the starting rotation.
Note: McRae proposed to his long-time girlfriend this past Christmas Eve, and they plan to wed in the offseason. If you see him around the ballpark this summer, throw a “congratulations” his way!