Keaton McKinney giving up baseball after second Tommy John

By: Matt Jones
Published: Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Arkansas pitcher Keaton McKinney answers questions during the Razorbacks' annual baseball media day on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas pitcher Keaton McKinney answers questions during the Razorbacks' annual baseball media day on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, in Fayetteville.

— Keaton McKinney once was one of the most heralded recruits ever to make it to Arkansas' campus, a right-handed pitcher with All-America credentials who turned down high six figures to play for the Razorbacks.

Four years and three surgeries later, McKinney is giving up baseball, saying he has lost passion for playing the game after undergoing a second Tommy John surgery in April.

"A couple of weeks ago I knew it was time to give it up," McKinney said. "(At the end of the season) I didn't know what I wanted to do at that point because I knew it was going to be a long road ahead again."

McKinney said he informed Arkansas coaches of the decision last week. He said he asked for advice from head coach Dave Van Horn during the exit interviews for injured and redshirting players in May.

"He told me he didn't want to make the decision for me," McKinney said. "He told me he wanted me to be at peace with whatever I decided."

Pitching again always seemed like a long shot for McKinney, who also underwent a hip surgery following the 2015 season in which he was named a Freshman All-American by Louisville Slugger, but he had left the door open for possibly returning in 2019 if his rehabilitation went well.

"It was my third time going through this and I had always had bad experiences," McKinney said of his previous rehabs. "I had always been behind the eight ball with everything. I never got to throw in fall ball and with this new surgery, I didn't know how it would hold up during the season. I didn't want to put them in that situation again and I just knew that it was time for me to move on to other things. I kind of lost the passion for the game along the way having all these surgeries."

McKinney was a high-level prospect coming out of Centennial High School in Ankeny, Iowa, in large part because of a plus changeup that helped him to his successful freshman season with the Razorbacks. He started 18 games as a freshman in 2015 and his 3.21 ERA was the lowest among Arkansas' starters. He threw two complete games.

"One of my favorite memories was the game at Alabama," McKinney said of his two-hit shutout on May 2, 2015. "Obviously the dog pile (after the Fayetteville Super Regional win over Missouri State) is something I'll remember forever, then pitching in Omaha was a dream come true for me.

"That was always my goal in going to Arkansas. That gives me a little peace in my decision."

Toward the end of the 2015 regular season, McKinney began to develop a sharp pain in his hip that lingered throughout the postseason.

"It was pretty tough," McKinney said. "It made me almost want to throw up whenever I would feel the pain."

McKinney underwent the hip surgery after the season, but never returned to the same form he had as a freshman. He had a 6.66 ERA in 12 starts and one relief appearance as a sophomore in 2016, and didn't pitch the following season after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in a preseason scrimmage, an injury that he once said doctors told him could have been the result of putting too much stress on his upper body to compensate for his earlier hip injury.

His first Tommy John rehab went well enough that he was able to go through preseason practice on a limited basis this year, and he was penciled in for a short start during Arkansas' season-opening series. McKinney allowed one hit and walked two batters in two innings against Bucknell on Feb. 18, but never pitched again after leaving the game with a burning sensation in his surgically-repaired elbow.

"I've seen him work so hard to get in the best shape I'd ever seen him in when he came back (last) summer ready to go," Van Horn said in May. "Then for him to get hurt again...he's just a tough kid. I think all that he's learned here and all that he's gone through is really going to help him throughout his lifetime.

"I think he'll be successful in whatever he chooses to do - in the business world, or anything - because he knows how to persevere and get through things when it's not going good."

McKinney, who said he doesn't plan on coaching, is now selling insurance for his brother's agency in Wes Des Moines, Iowa. He is one credit shy of his degree in financial management investment, which he will earn by Aug. 3.

"I always get asked if I regret my decision to go to Arkansas, but I think peace is there," McKinney said. "I definitely don't regret my decision because I had the four best years of my life. My playing time got hindered a little bit by surgeries and being injured a lot, but at the same time Arkansas was great to me."

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