The Colorado Rockies, in simple terms, are not a very good baseball team. Their 8-13 start to the season is less than ideal. Their roster doesn’t really inspire much confidence either. However, lost in the shuffle of Colorado’s supposed tank has been Ryan McMahon, and more specifically how through the first month of the 2021 MLB season, he’s been crushing baseballs.
McMahon, drafted in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft out of Mater Dei, initially lived up to his draft pedigree and then some with a spectacular stint in Rookie ball where he slashed .321/.402/.583 across 251 plate appearances. Following this, he was rewarded with a promotion to the Rockies’ A Ball affiliate in 2014 where he posted a less impressive, but still solid .860 OPS. Going into the 2015 season, McMahon was ranked as the 50th best prospect in the MLB and 5th best in the Rockies farm system. McMahon responded to this ranking with a stellar 2015 in A+ ball where he showed off his power with 18 homers and 43 doubles and his discipline with a .372 OBP, solidifying his position as a member of the Rockies future core. In 2016, McMahon continued his rise through the minors with a promotion to Double A Hartford. However, McMahon struggled to produce in Hartford, as he posted a measly .724 OPS and just 44 extra base hits. Despite this, however, McMahon was still ranked as the 56th best prospect in the MLB and 3rd in Colorado’s farm going into the 2017 season. McMahon would once again live up to his ranking with his best season in the minors yet where he would post a .986 OPS across 519 plate appearances first with Hartford and later with Triple-A Albuquerque.
Sensing that McMahon was ready for the show, the Rockies decided to call McMahon up on August 11, 2017. However, he would flounder in his first stint with the big league team as he posted an OPS+ of just 39 over 17 games played and 24 plate appearances in what would end up being a harbinger of things to come. Despite his lackluster 2017 performance, Colorado still decided to have McMahon start at first base in 2018. He would struggle in this position as he had an OPS of .517 prior to his demotion. This struggle is backed up by more advanced statistics as well with his average launch angle being under 10 degrees and his average exit velocity sitting under 90 miles per hour during this stretch. McMahon was brought back in late May after an impressive stint back in Albuquerque, and he was fantastic down the stretch. This is seen with his OPS+ in both July and August of 2018 sitting above 130, providing some optimism for McMahon to break out in the following seasons.
McMahon did not end up breaking out in 2019 or 2020 in any sense of the term, as he was once again a below average hitter with his OPS+ being below 90 in both seasons. However, these seasons did provide some hope for McMahon, as he hit the ball hard in 2019 and 2020 with average exit velocities around 90 miles per hour in both seasons. His expected numbers for 2019 were cause for concern however, as even though his OPS+ was already subpar, his expected batting average was 8 points below what it actually was and his expected slugging percentage was 23 points below what it actually ended up being. There were two main problems for McMahon in 2019, his strikeout rate nearing 30% and his 2.61 groundballs hit per flyball, making for a lot of grounders that didn’t really stand a chance.
Going into 2021, McMahon was still primed for a starting role on a Rockies team that was blatantly tanking after trading star third baseman Nolan Arenado for pennies on the dollar. However, unlike his performances in the previous few seasons, McMahon has been absolutely fantastic so far as he’s posted two thirds of the WAR he posted in 2019 in just 80 plate appearances with an OPS approaching .900. This uptick in production can best be explained through a massive increase in both flyball rate and launch angle. His groundball to flyball ratio has improved dramatically since 2019, as he now has essentially the same amount of groundballs as flyballs, a far cry from his 2.61 groundballs per flyball in 2019. Additionally, his average launch angle has increased from just under 10 percent two seasons ago to nearly 20 percent in 2021. These increases have caused him to be among the home runs leaders in the league so far. It’s also worth noting that McMahon’s excellence this season isn’t just a products of Coors Field, as his wRC+ sits at 120, meaning that he has been 25 percent better than the average hitter regardless of Coors Field. All in all, it’s safe to say that the McMahon breakout is for real, and his production may allow the Rockies to obtain a premium return for him at the trade deadline if their new GM decides to continue the tank.