The last time Keaton McKinney felt this healthy and excited heading into a baseball season, the Ankeny native was a high school senior catching the attention of college and professional scouts everywhere.
McKinney is trying to recapture the form from when he was one of the best pitching prospects in the nation, a Major League Baseball draft pick and a future star at Arkansas.
The next step in that journey comes Sunday when McKinney, now a redshirt junior and right-handed pitcher for the Razorbacks, returns to the hill for his first start in nearly two years.
“This is the most ready I’ve been for a season,” McKinney said. “I’m as healthy as I can be. My hip feels great. My arm’s feeling great. I’m just excited.”
It’s been a long time coming. McKinney, a star at Ankeny and then Ankeny Centennial High School, was ranked the 37th-best recruit nationally and No. 1 recruit in Iowa by Perfect Game.
After slipping in the MLB Draft his senior year because of high financial demands, McKinney was eventually selected by the New York Mets in the 28th round. Instead of going pro, McKinney decided to go to Arkansas.
The decision has brought mixed results.
McKinney was a star for the Diamond Hogs during his freshman season. He went 6-2 with a 3.21 earned run average in 21 games, including 18 starts and was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American. He had a huge hand in helping the Hogs get back to the College World Series for the first time since 2012.
But injuries have hampered the rest of his career. A year after his fantastic freshman season, McKinney went 1-5 with a 6.66 ERA while he dealt with a hip injury that required surgery after the season. Another year later, doctors discovered McKinney had a fully torn UCL and bone chip that was completely unattached.
McKinney said he could have been pitching with the elbow injury for up to two years as scar tissue built up. The tissue eventually gave out and became too much for McKinney, who underwent Tommy John surgery on Feb. 10, 2017. His entire 2017 season was over before it began.
“I couldn’t do anything,” McKinney said. “You’ve got to watch the whole team for a season. Every game I’d watch, I just knew that I wanted to be back out there again, pitching for the team and competing. It just really gave me that passion again for the game.”
McKinney channeled that passion into a rigid regime while he rehabbed. It went slow at first. McKinney spent the first six weeks lifting small one- to three-pound weights. It wasn’t until about six months after his surgery that he picked up a baseball. He then eased into a throwing program that started with catch and didn't expand to his first bullpen session until nine months out.
Despite the struggles at the end of his sophomore season and the slow process in his road to recovery, McKinney said he maintained faith that he’d be back on the mound someday helping the Hogs.
“I just tried to keep as positive as possible,” McKinney said. “I knew I’d get a chance again if I just kept my head down and kept working and tried to get healthy again.”
It also helped that he got reassurances from Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn that the Hogs would honor McKinney’s scholarship and still have a spot for him if he worked hard during his rehab.
McKinney did just that. He spent his entire summer working his way into the best shape of his life while back in Ankeny. McKinney would get up at 5 a.m. every day and drive to a gym in Humboldt for a 5:30 a.m. workout. He’d sometimes use his lunch break at his internship to go on runs. His nights would also be spent at the gym doing medicine ball, speed and core work drills.
The hard work paid off for McKinney, who came back to Arkansas looking better than ever.
“He’s way ahead of schedule,” Van Horn said. "Physically, he’s in the best shape of his life.”
McKinney may be an even better pitcher, too. He’s got new life on his fastball and will come armed with a new pitch this season.
Van Horn said McKinney, who was hitting the low 90s with his fastball prior to the injury, is now sitting anywhere from 89 to 93 mph. The Arkansas skipper believes it could rise even more since it’s still early in the year and since McKinney still building his arm strength.
The biggest difference-maker for McKinney this season could be his curveball. McKinney came to Arkansas armed with the fastball and a great changeup. Van Horn said the curveball, which he had early in his career, was a pitch McKinney didn’t have great command or confidence with. Thus, he would rarely throw it.
That started to change when Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson introduced a new grip to the pitch for McKinney before his surgery. McKinney was excited but never got a chance to showcase it. He finally can this season, and it could take his game to another level.
“Now when we put him out there, we started seeing a lot more depth,” Van Horn said. “It showed a lot more downward action on his breaking ball which if he has that pitch and he can command it a little bit with the other two, it’s really going to help him.”
Although Van Horn has been happy with what he’s seen out of McKinney in some scrimmages, he plans to ease him back into things this season. He’ll have McKinney on a pitch count for his first start this Sunday. After that, he doesn’t know where McKinney will fit into things on Arkansas’ roster full of talented arms.
McKinney could be a weekend rotation guy, a midweek starter or even go to the bullpen. Van Horn said McKinney still stands out and wants to find a way to use him. In the meantime, he wants to see how McKinney responds as they build up his pitch count.
“We’ll just keep an eye on that, and if it just keeps building up and up to where he’s effective, I think he would definitely stay a starter,” Van Horn said.
Even after everything McKinney has been through, Van Horn still sees a bright future for the pitcher.
“He’s been through the battles here,” Van Horn said. “He’s seen it and I would have to say that he’s going to be better before it’s over with.”
If everything does go as well as Van Horn thinks it will, then McKinney should have another shot at pro baseball. Van Horn is already planning on this being McKinney’s last season at Arkansas.
“I think Keaton will sign a professional contract this summer,” Van Horn said. “I think he’ll be that good and they’ll be able to read into the future a little bit and I think he might even show what he can do this spring. I think if he stays healthy, it’ll be pretty obvious he needs to be in a minor league organization this year.”
Although it’s been a wild ride for McKinney in college, he said he has no regrets about walking away from a pro contract in high school.
“That’s never went through my mind, honestly,” McKinney said. “I’ve had a great time here. I’ve had a lot of memories made. The College World Series — I wouldn’t trade any of it to go back and sign a pro contract, because you never know with all the injures I had whether I would have been on a team after all these injuries … I’ve had a great time here.”
McKinney is hoping there are more good times to be had — starting at noon Sunday, when he gets back on the mound against Bucknell.
“I’m excited like a little kid,” McKinney said.