It’s the life of a fringe Major League Baseball player, carving out chances for playing time when those chances can be few and far between. That’s where outfielder Ryan McKenna finds himself with the Orioles, continually raking in Triple-A yet unable to break through completely in Baltimore.
He’s back now, a necessary move to cover for the injury to outfielder Austin Hays and first baseman Ryan Mountcastle. The Orioles have a short bench and need assistance, and McKenna has the experience — albeit slim — at this level to slot in. He’s a known commodity, even if he’s featured as a spot starter and defensive replacement for much of his time in the big leagues.
That can be a challenging position. Without regular at-bats, it’s difficult to find a rhythm at the plate, leaving his production vastly different between Triple-A and the majors.
Now that he’s back, though, McKenna hopes this time can be different — that this time he can stick.
“I know I can perform and help the team win here,” McKenna said. “You can’t really control some of those things logistically, but just play hard. Try to help the team win, be a good teammate, all those things. Add to a positive environment has been kind of my mindset.”
The 25-year-old made his debut last season, playing in 90 games and finishing with a .183 batting average and nine extra-base hits. In his 27 games in Triple-A, however, McKenna hit 11 homers and posted a 1.106 OPS.
The Orioles sent McKenna down to Norfolk earlier this month, too, to make room for additional utility help and reshuffle the pitching staff. He returned Saturday and played left field, finishing 0-for-3 and dropping his average to .227. Meanwhile, in his eight Triple-A games this season, McKenna has a .273 batting average and crushed three homers in one night.
That drastic difference creates a yo-yo effect, leaving McKenna in no-man’s land. He’s a great Triple-A player. He’s a below-average MLB player. And he’s trying to find his role.
“That’s just part of professional sports,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Everybody’s going to get an opportunity — or you hope to get that opportunity — and we believe in Mac’s talent, so we’re going to continue to give it to him up here and hope he runs with it.”
When McKenna was sent down earlier this month, the conversation with Hyde outlined a desire to get McKenna everyday at-bats. The plan worked, getting him back into a routine as a leadoff man for the Tides and leaving him with more confidence for his return to the majors.
“Just seeing pitches I think is the biggest thing,” McKenna said. “It’s been a weird last couple years for everybody. Regular playing time has been at a premium, so I think just getting that was huge.”
The seesaw was in effect Saturday, though, when McKenna played left field. He struck out in the top half of the second, and then he misplayed a ball down the line and was charged with an error. Later, though, McKenna saved a potential run when he tracked down a liner and ran into the fence.
That’s the way it’s been for McKenna at this level, struggling to make the same sort of impact he makes with Triple-A.
“He’s playing kind of part-time up here,” Hyde said, “and that’s not easy as a young player.”
But this time, McKenna hopes a part-time role can become more permanent, even if his name isn’t on the lineup card each day.