Keaton McKinney: Third Arkansas starter because he’s back or because others struggled?

SEC Country reporter Eric W. Bolin will candidly answer your Arkansas Razorbacks sports queries each weekday in our  Mailbag Question of the Day. Join the conversation by sending your questions via Twitter to  @SECCountryHogs or by email to Eric at  ericwbolin@gmail.com.

Question of the Day: Thursday, February 16, 2018

To casual fans, this seems like a throwaway question. It’s a little, for lack of a better term, inside baseball to talk about the No. 3 starter before baseball season begins. But given Arkansas’ expectations this year – making it to the College World Series – and Keaton McKinney’s previous body of work, it’s of great interest and possibly even importance.

McKinney is a junior right-hander from Iowa. As a freshman in 2015, he was the team’s ace. Out of nowhere he was tops in earned-run average and batting-average against. McKinney wasn’t a strikeout artist, but he was efficient pitching to contact. Hip problems derailed his sophomore season and Tommy John surgery kept him out last year. Honestly, his career looked finished at Arkansas.

Coach Dave Van Horn, though, named McKinney his No. 3 starter for this weekend’s season-opening series against Bucknell. That’s the genesis of the question. The answer, well, I have a third option.

McKinney has been good this school year, no doubt about it. Van Horn wouldn’t throw him out there against live competition if he hadn’t. However, McKinney hasn’t been good against real opponents since April 2015. It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine, after multiple surgeries he somehow leapfrogged Kacey Murphy and Matt Cronin, two guys who were considered up for the gig and who have pitched at an elite level far more recently. That’s even if those two had modest springs.

My answer is Van Horn wants to see what McKinney has at this point. Bucknell provides good testing ground. It’s a low-stakes game and McKinney won’t throw more than 40 pitches, probably. Test the arm — and the hip — against a real opponent, in a real start. McKinney, for his part, will say all the right things no matter how it goes. Same as he did in 2015 when the hip flared up and in 2016 when it was clearly hampering his play (to the tune of a 6.66 ERA). He’s what they call an old-school gamer.

If Arkansas gets anything from him this year, it’s a boon. A treasure. Without him, the Razorbacks, on paper, have the second-best pitching staff in the SEC. At least. With him — a guy who was the team’s ace during a College World Series year — the possibilities are incredible.

I can’t say we will learn a whole lot Sunday if McKinney’s start is standard fare. Assuming it’s not terrible, a la Isaiah Campbell’s appearance last year (when he was clearly hurt, too), it’s going to take a few outings to get a gauge of what McKinney has left. My bet is plenty.

He probably won’t be the same pitcher he was a freshman. But I’ll guarantee, if healthy, he won’t be the same pitcher he was as a sophomore, either. That’s capital news for the Diamond Hogs.

The post Keaton McKinney: Third Arkansas starter because he’s back or because others struggled? appeared first on SEC Country.

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