Former college quarterback starting to shine for the Cyclones
There aren’t many professional baseball players who can say they’ve thrown a touchdown pass in both the SEC and PAC-12.
Brandon McIlwain can.
“That was an amazing experience,” McIlwain said. “College football is so exciting, such a huge fan base behind me, and there’s so much that goes along with it. To have that experience was really, really cool.”
McIlwain started his collegiate career at the University of South Carolina and played in eight games for the Gamecocks in 2016 before transferring to The University of California, Berkeley. At Cal in 2018, as the school is known for athletics, he played 10 games, while also playing baseball.
He was a two-sport Division I college athlete and a Power Five athlete at that.
“It was a lot,” McIlwain said. “It was definitely a lot of work, and I had to make sure I found time to get baseball in during football season and get football in during baseball season. But it was so much fun … some of those stadiums and places that I’ve been able to play are breathtaking.”
The 2018 football season would be his last, deciding to focus on his baseball career. McIlwain said that being drafted by the Miami Marlins after the 2019 college baseball season showed him that he had a future in professional baseball, even though he didn’t sign with the fish.
McIlwain cited the foot injury that kept him sidelined for a good portion of the year as just one of the reasons why he wanted to return to Cal.
“I hadn’t played too much college baseball yet, that was my first real full season of college, and I just wasn’t quite ready for the everyday of major league baseball,” McIlwain said. “And I wanted to develop a little more in college, I wanted to finish my degree at Berkeley, and just see where it went from there.”
The 2020 season was of course abbreviated by COVID-19, which in turn impacted the 2020 MLB draft, shortening it to just five rounds. McIlwain, who was selected in the 26th round in 2019, went undrafted signed in 2020 and signed with the Mets.
“The Mets organization is awesome,” McIlwain said. “The facilities are great, and the locations of the teams are awesome. I went down to St. Lucie and got to see that Spring Training facility and it’s amazing too. There are a lot of good things. It’s located in the northeast where I’m from, and New York is an amazing fanbase, so it seemed like a really cool experience and a really cool opportunity to be able to play for the Mets.”
In 2021, his first season of professional ball, McIlwain hit .255/.362/.397 in 74 games for the St. Lucie Mets, prompting a promotion to Brooklyn in 2022. He even won a target competition in spring training before this season, Cyclones Manager Luis Rivera said, also saying that he expected that of the former college quarterback.
He has been the Cyclones’ primary right fielder all season, starting 33 of the team’s first 51 games in right, along with two starts in left and five games (four starts) at DH. He played primarily center field in college and said he is comfortable in all three outfield spots.
This season, McIlwain has noticeably improved throughout the year. After the first month of the season, he was hitting just .240/.296/.380. After May, those numbers climbed to .275/.363/.422. Now through the first eight games of June, they’re up to .287/.370/.434 — and his OPS of .804 is the best on the team.
McIlwain said that now in his second year of professional baseball, it’s nice this year to have some more familiarity with the organization.
“I think it’s played a huge role in my development this season,” McIlwain said. “I’ve been able to work on the same philosophy for a couple of years and really hone in on what the Mets are looking for development-wise.”
That philosophy, McIlwain said, is to swing at good pitches by getting more comfortable with taking close ones, allowing him to be more aggressive on ones in the heart of the zone.
Rivera echoed those thoughts, noting how much McIlwain has improved this year at the plate, especially in his approach. Rivera said basically the same thing as McIlwain — that he’s being more aggressive on pitches in the zone, and putting good swings on them.
“Before he was chasing pitches off the edge,” Rivera said. “Now he has refined his strike zone a little more, and it’s been working for him.”
The refined approach has clearly been working, with McIlwain going from a .676 OPS in April to a .874 OPS in May and a .881 so far in June. He’s been on base in 13 of his last 14 games and his strikeout percentage is third-best on the team.
“I’ve just been trying to simplify things and do as much as I can to help the team win,” McIlwain said.