(Photo via Jim Lund, UW-La Crosse Athletics)
Three years ago, Mason McMahon was hardly pitching at all. Now, an ace for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Eagles, he ranks third among Division III pitchers in strikeouts per nine innings and may be drafted this June.
The desire to pitch has always been a part of McMahon’s baseball career, but his size deprived him of the opportunity. “I didn’t start seriously pitching until my junior or senior year of high school cause I was really a lot smaller than everyone growing up,” McMahon said. As a prep ballplayer, he primarily played second base and barely spent any time on the mound for a pitching staff led by two eventual University of Minnesota commits. A self-described underdog, McMahon says embracing that mentality drives him.
Several local Division II and III colleges showed interest in McMahon, but many were turned off by his size, requesting he play JV or at a junior college and gaining weight before eventually transferring. “Every school just told me to get bigger if I wanted to play college baseball.” At 5-foot-10 and near 150 pounds when he began college, he went to UW-LaCrosse where he was told he could make the team, but only as a pitcher. So McMahon turned his focus to pitching full time.
Throwing just 12 innings total, McMahon described his first year with the Eagles as a learning experience. “I had a lot of upperclassmen and my coaches walking me through how to be a pitcher instead of a thrower,” McMahon said. “At one point my freshman year, I struggled against [UW-Stevens Point] and just sat on the bench and remember thinking to myself ‘I hate this feeling of failure.’”
McMahon used these lessons for motivation and an increased dedication to his craft. “I promised myself that offseason I was gonna work as hard as I can,” he said. “I focused on really gaining weight.” Allergic to whey protein, a popular supplement, McMahon was forced to use plant-based alternatives in his quest. Coming from a family of late bloomers, McMahon has grown two inches and added a substantial amount of weight since beginning college.
Coming into his sophomore season, McMahon was confused when he found out he was just eighth on the starting pitcher depth chart. He didn’t yet think of himself as a professional prospect, but went all in on his goal of sticking as a starter. McMahon defeated a ranked opponent during a March trip to Florida, helping to cement himself in the regular weekend rotation as the number-four starter early in the season. From there, McMahon continued to improve, finishing the season with 48 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings to go along with a 3.68 ERA. He eventually made his way to second in the rotation and defeated top-five ranked UW-Whitewater on their home field in the NCAA Midwest Regional.
McMahon then earned a 10-day contract with the La Crosse Loggers of the Northwoods League, a prestigious collegiate summer league filled with some of the country’s top players. “I was the only [Division III] kid on the team,” McMahon said. “I knew I had to outwork all the [Division I] guys.” McMahon’s stay with the team was only guaranteed for 10 days as some players were still finishing up their college seasons. But he impressed enough to earn a 30-day contract upon the expiration of the first deal. When that contract was up, McMahon was offered a full contract for the rest of the summer. He then asked for leave from the team.
McMahon returned to his home of Maple Grove, MN for several weeks to spend time with his father, who was ill. While away from the Loggers, McMahon continued to use the conditioning program prescribed by pitching coach Tom Kinney. McMahon finished the summer season with the Loggers, eventually making six starts. In one of his final starts, he struck out nine while walking just one and allowed two runs over six innings in a victory over the Rochester Honkers. He finished with a 6.95 ERA but struck out more than a batter per inning and made enormous strides.
Kinney says McMahon met his expectation of a pitcher throwing in the mid to upper 80s when he started out with the Loggers. But McMahon’s eagerness to improve and commitment to Kinney’s program, even while away from the team, allowed him to throw much harder. “When he came back [from Minnesota], he’s all of a sudden 92-93 and the ball’s got a little bit of pop on it,” Kinney said. “You could see the enthusiasm he had for the whole program.”
From then on, McMahon has believed he may have a future in pro ball. He now uses fastballs with two grips, an occasional changeup, a slurve he can throw for strikes at any time, and a newer spiked curveball. “It’s a good, tight 12-6. He can throw it behind in the count, with guys on base, it’s not a lazy strike.” Kinney said of the curve. “When he’s on, you can’t touch it. I think that’s the pitch that can separate him from other guys.”
McMahon is a mechanics junkie, and Kinney’s emphasis on using hip and shoulder separation to generate velocity have allowed him to throw hard despite his size. “My mechanics are there,” he said. “I use my body well; I have the arm whip.” Kinney’s work with McMahon also focused on biomechanics for health purposes. Kinney says he was doing everything correctly by the end of the summer season, and McMahon continues to use Kinney’s program during his junior season.
Partway through the season, McMahon has whiffed 77 hitters in just 45 2/3 innings. He threw a complete game with 13 strikeouts and no walks in early April. “I don’t want people to put in play against me,” McMahon said on being a strikeout pitcher. Now at 6-foot-0 and maintaining his weight between 170 and 180 pounds, McMahon believes his ceiling is far from realized. “I’m still developing. I’m very skinny, I can put on a lot more weight than I have,” he said.
Both Kinney and McMahon see the young pitcher’s relative inexperience as an advantage. “A lot of other kids are a lot closer to Tommy John surgery or other injuries just because of the wear and tear they’ve been putting on for years,” Kinney said. “But he just doesn’t have all those innings on the arm.” Both see potential for velocity uptick as well, with Kinney thinking he can reach the mid 90s and McMahon feeling even the high 90s are attainable. In addition to the immaturity of his arm, McMahon has plenty of room to improve his feel for pitching. “He needs to develop that [fastball command]. He’s just starting that process. It’s not like he’s been doing that for 13 or 14 years,” Kinney said. “He’s just gonna get better and better. I can see him getting to Double-A with ease.”
Now aware that scouts are taking notice of him, McMahon is still working to get bigger. As a full time student-athlete, devoting time and money to adding weight can be challenging, especially at a Division III college that can’t offer athletic scholarships. He believes the offseason presents him with the best opportunity for bulking up and thinks he could reach 190 or 200 pounds within a year.
Though certain of his ability and optimistic of his potential, McMahon intently remembers being overlooked when striving to improve. His description of his dedication is echoed by Kinney, who sees McMahon as a smart, quiet competitor who is not shy when asking for help. McMahon has had less time to learn the art of pitching than his peers. But Kinney says his underdog protege learns quickly, and added that he’s rooting for him.