As 2023 wraps up, 2024 should reveal a new crop of top KC Royals prospects. The team's new pitching development is already reaping rewards, while late-round position players are making waves throughout the organization's affiliated clubs. One player that diehard Royals fans need to watch is lefty reliever Cooper McKeehan.
Cooper McKeehan was an elite reliever in the KC Royals organization last season.
The Royals drafted McKeehan, a BYU alum, in the 16th round of the 2022 MLB Draft. He had a non-descript collegiate career, playing in 56 games for the Cougars. He quickly made his way to Low-A Columbia following the draft, making five appearances for the Fireflies in 2022. Better things came for the 22-year-old in his sophomore season.
McKeehan turned into the best Royals prospect you have nMcKeehan turned into the best Royals prospect you have ever heard of for the Fireflies. He had separate scoreless streaks of ten and nine games in Columbia, racking up 11 saves in his 31 appearances. His 1.08 ERA was the lowest in the Carolina League from a pitcher with at least 50 innings since Corbin Burnes in 2017.
McKeehan works as an offspeed pitcher, utilizing a three-pitch mix of sinker, changeup, and curveball. His sinker in 2023 was fairly new, replacing his previous underwhelming four-seam offering. He still mixed in a four-seam fastball as a safe pitch, primarily in 3-1 counts. It is far from overpowering, but it froze Low-A batters who likely expected a breaking ball their way.
McKeehan's dominance in Low-A earned him a spot on the Carolina League's Post-Season All-Star Team, the only Kansas City prospect to do so. The Royals had plenty of standouts in Low-A, but McKeehan stood higher than his peers.
His dominance did not immediately transition to High-A Quad Cities after making his first appearance there on Aug. 5. His strikeouts remain consistent, but his walks spiked to 8.1 BB/9 from 1.80 BB/9 with the Fireflies. More pitches per plate appearance means more pitches per inning, leading to increased chances for error. He made 10 appearances for the River Bandits with evenly split results. He looked strong in five shutout appearances but overwhelmed in five outings allowing two or more runs. Fans should have room for grace, considering McKeehan's late-season promotion. But, his 8.78 ERA and 2.18 WHIP in High-A are hard to ignore.
Across both levels, there are plenty of encouraging signs. This is how he ranked among Royals minor leaguers with at least 40 innings pitched in some key metrics.
- Wins - 10 (3rd)
- ERA - 2.70 (3rd)
- FIP - 3.46 (11th)
- K/9 - 9.52 (40th)
- BB/9 - 3.13 (14th)
- K/BB - 3.05 (14th)
- Swinging strike rate - 13.9% (18th)
- Groundball (GB) rate - 67.3% (1st)
- Flyball (FB) rate - 17.3% (1st)
- GB/FB - 3.89 (1st)
What McKeehan can control, he controls well. He is not going to overpower opposing batters, but his pitch-to-contact approach should serve him well in 2024 and beyond. So, what went wrong moving from Low-A to High-A? According to the numbers, opposing batters turned more of those rare flyballs into home runs. MCKeehan still had a great 61.5% GB rate in Quad Cities, but his FB rate rose to 23.1%. Coinciding with that jump were more home runs. McKeehan's HR/FB rate rose to 22.2% in High-A. That would have been the fourth-worst mark in the Royals minors, and four points worse than any Kansas City MLB pitcher.
Despite the initial struggles in High-A, McKeehan's talent and potential are undeniable. With his impressive performance in Columbia, he has proven himself as an intriguing asset to the Royals organization. As he continues to develop and refine his skills, it will be exciting to see how McKeehan progresses in the future. As the major prospect evaluators continue to release their top 30 prospects in the Royals system, do not be surprised if McKeehan makes an appearance.