By Dave Roberts
The Cleveland Indians used their first three picks in the 2015 draft on prep arms, an interesting choice considering the more unknowns you face with high school players instead of college. But the Indians have drafted well in recent years, and that can be attributed to at least two of those three picks showing a great character and quality professional debuts so far.
Triston McKenzie, a supplemental first rounder who went No. 42 overall and Juan Hillman, a second-round pick 59th overall are those two such players. Both McKenzie, 18, a righty, and Hillman, 19, a lefty, came out of high schools in Florida and following the draft vaulted themselves as top 10 prospects in the Cleveland Indians organization, a testament to their promise thus far.
McKenzie, out of Royal Palm Beach High School and Hillman, out of Olympia High School, were each committed to Vanderbilt and University of Central Florida, respectively, but the high selection and a favorable view of the Indians farm system convinced them to sign and start their professional careers.
Both hurlers spent the remainder of the 2015 season participating in the Arizona Rookie League, and this year they stayed in extended spring training up until they were assigned to the short-season Single-A Mahoning Valley Scrappers opening day roster.
“(In extended spring training) we wake up real early and play baseball every day,” McKenzie said. “It’s very developmental based, you work on anything you feel like can make you successful.”
Hillman echoed McKenzie’s sentiment as to how helpful extended spring training was.
“I threw a lot of innings, it helped me get a feel of my pitches and command of the strike zone,” Hillman said. “It also allows you to bond more with the teammates, and I feel like everyone is in a great spot.”
They each fell in love with baseball at a young age, though Hillman was a two-sport athlete for much of his childhood. He played quarterback on his football teams, but thanks in part to his second family, he made the realization that he was better fit for baseball and in the end; he could have a larger impact on the sport.
“I grew up in a baseball family, my godparents, the Gordons, (former major leaguer) Tom and his family,” Hillman said. “Hanging out with (Miami Marlins second baseman) Dee and (Minnesota Twins minor leaguer) Nick and working out and doing whatever they do and following their footsteps.”
McKenzie, in his professional debut in 2015, went 1-1 with a 0.75 ERA over 12 innings, allowing one run on four hits while striking out 17 and walking three. Meanwhile, Hillman posted an 0-2 record with a 4.13 ERA over 24 innings, allowing 13 runs (11 earned), on 26 hits while striking out 20 and walking five.
Fast forward to 2016 and McKenzie is making his debut with the Scrappers on Saturday and logging six innings, allowing one run over four hits, striking out six and walking one while taking a tough-luck loss in a 3-1 defeat to the West Virginia Black Bears. Hillman is scheduled to make his 2016 debut for the Scrappers on the road Sunday against the Auburn Doubledays.
McKenzie, a right-hander who stands at 6-foot-5 and 165 pounds, uses a three-pitch mix of fastball, curveball, and changeup which have all been considered above-average pitches for a prep player. He can register up to mid 90s with his fastball, and with his tall frame, he projects to get stronger and add a tick more speed. While he has velocity, he also has an ability to hit his spots on the plate as well, and with an easy windup that figures to be easy to replicate.
Meanwhile, Hillman is 6-foot-2, 185-pound lefty who doesn’t toss quite as hard as McKenzie. His fastball registers in the low 90s, but he has good command and a very repeatable delivery. He uses a 4-seam fastball, circle change, split change, and a curveball, with his fastball and changeup being plus pitches.
Though they only have limited experience in professional baseball, so far they both have learned so much from just a year in the Indians organization.
“For me I learned it was mainly just finding how everything works especially since pro ball is at a different pace than high school ball,” McKenzie said. “You can’t really blow by guys like I did in high school, it’s more you have to outthink guys.”
Similarly, Hillman found the daily routine of pro baseball helpful in his first year.
“I learned to stay focused and have routine,” Hillman said. “I felt out of synch the first year, but with a routine I felt I’m more ready and able to develop.”
As they both prepare for their first full season in professional ball, they each have goals to strive for.
For Hillman, it is learning to pitch using his lower half more; a move the Indians suggested that gives him more strength off the mound and less strain on his arm.
McKenzie’s said his focus is to hopefully toss a perfect game every time out, but at the very least he just wants to give his team a chance to win every fifth day while keeping an open dialogue with the Indians as to changes to make himself better, as well.