As a lifelong Mets fan, things haven’t gone exactly as planned for Torin McKenzie this summer. What was expected to be a big year has turned into a disaster, but the North Hamilton centerfielder likes to look at the bright side.
“I mean, it’s tough to watch, but I love watching Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil,” McKenzie said. “They’re my favorite players to watch, so it isn’t all bad.”
Those two have indeed made the summer bearable for McKenzie, but so has one other thing—he has turned it around at the plate. Now in his second year of American Legion baseball, McKenzie is starting to figure things out after struggling last season and also scuffling during the Nottingham High School season.
As a sophomore this spring, McKenzie hit just .245, but started to show signs of life late in the season. He carried that momentum into the legion campaign and with two games left in the regular season was hitting .312 with four doubles and a team-high 15 RBI.
Much of it has to do with channeling into his inner lack-of-aggression.
“I’ve just been trying to look at better pitches,” McKenzie said. “I’ve been trying to be more selective at the plate and wait for pitches I like. That’s pretty much it. I’ve been taking more pitches than high school. It was hard to get used to but you have to be more patient.”
North Hamilton manager Matt Maher, who served as his dad Jim’s assistant for Nottingham, felt McKenzie’s approach was not just aggressive, but aggressive on steroids.
“Early in the high school season as soon as the ball left the pitcher’s hand he was swinging; he didn’t even know where the heck it was going,” Matt Maher said. “He was losing track of the strike zone and just going up there hacking. Now he’s getting himself to lay off those pitches. For the most part he’s giving himself a 1-0, 2-0 count and he’s getting fastballs and not missing them. He’s batting behind Bryce (Fremgen) who has been getting a lot of intentional walks, and he’s come through numerous times.”
The chasing of pitches was not something new for McKenzie. Coming up through Hamilton Little Lads, Hamilton Babe Ruth and several different travel ball teams, he was constantly in attack mode at the plate.
“I was always aggressive, but the pitching wasn’t as good,” he said. “It’s getting more competitive now, and they know how to take advantage of that. I realize I have to get better at the plate. As I’ve been taking pitches, I’ve been seeing more fastballs, and it’s much easier to hit.”
Not only is he hitting well, but McKenzie is hitting in the clutch. In the midst of North Hamilton’s late-season playoff push, he had an RBI hit to break a scoreless tie against Hightstown in the fifth inning, his two-run single against Trenton increased a 3-2 lead to 5-2 and, although it eventually ended in a loss, he got a big early hit to give the Hibos a 2-0 lead against Hamilton.
“He’s getting big two-out hits and I’ll bet you he’s probably hitting .500 with guys in scoring position,” Maher said. “It seems like when we get him up with guys on base we’re getting good results. He’s the guy we want up at the plate.”
McKenzie certainly wants to be up in those situations.
“I like batting in key spots,” he said. “I don’t let the pressure get to me. I just do what I normally do with a regular at-bat. Just go up and take the bad pitches and swing at the good ones. There’s a time and a place (to attack) and I just realized I have to take more pitches to help my team.”
Conversely, his aggressive nature has been a huge help defensively. After playing right field for Nottingham, McKenzie was asked to play center for North Hamilton for the simple reason Maher had no one to play there. He has not only adapted, but thrived.
“Man, he couldn’t be any better out there,” Maher said. “I don’t think he’s made an error. He’s covered a lot more ground than anyone I’ve ever seen in centerfield. Including (former Northstar) David Scott, who’s one of the best centerfielders I’ve ever seen. He gets to everything. It don’t look pretty, but he gets there. He runs it down and catches it.”
Maher invented a word to describe what makes McKenzie so good with the glove.
“He’s super-ly athletic,” the skipper said. “He gets a good jump on the ball, and he’s got a cannon for an arm.”
McKenzie, who has long been a corner outfielder, has enjoyed the move.
“I like it a lot,” he said. “I’ve been seeing the ball well in center. I like the outfield in general. But centerfield is fun. I like kind of being in control. I try and get good reads in the outfield. I wish I could get faster, but a good read helps, too.”
McKenzie’s athleticism actually cost him some time on the baseball field. While playing in the CYO Basketball League this past March, he went up to block a shot and broke his little finger. It kept him out for most of the Northstars’ preseason practices.
“At first I thought I jammed it, and I started pulling at it and that made matters worse,” McKenzie said. “It bothered me a little when I came back. It took a little while to get used to it at the plate. Fielding wasn’t a struggle, but at the plate I struggled a little. But it wasn’t that big of a deal. The swinging at bad pitches was a much bigger issue.”
When he’s not playing baseball, McKenzie likes going to the volleyball courts in Robbinsville. A friend turned him on to the game about a month ago.
“I love to spike,” he said. “We just play for fun. I’ve always enjoyed pick-up volleyball. I might join a league when I’m a little older, but right now I’m just focusing on baseball.”
That includes playing and watching the sport.
“He loves his Mets,” Maher said. “He’s a quiet kid, and he does what you tell him. All he talks about is the Mets and going to play volleyball. Usually the only four words he ever says is, ‘Let’s go to the courts,’ or he talks about Pistol Pete Alonso.”
He’s a man with set priorities, and thankfully for North Hamilton, those priorities now include getting a good pitch to hit.