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An Ace up his Sleve?

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Photo Credit: BestSportsPhotos.com

The talent is there. You can see it when he's on, but the problem is, that doesn't come often enough. But as he turns 25 today, where has Seth McClung been, and where does he need to head? Can he overcome injuries and inconsistency and become the shutdown pitcher the Rays need?


Photo Credit: CandyFavorites.com
-McClung's affectionate nickname

A Tale of Two Starts:

August 7th: McClung absolutely bombs in his first start of the season against the Anaheim Angels. He barely throws half of his pitches for strikes, walks five times as many batters as he strikes out, and ends up giving six runs, all earned, over six hits (two of them home runs) in 2.2 innings. This follows up his horrible earlier outing against Texas in which he gave up seven runs in little more than five innings.

September 28th: In his final start of the season on the road against the Indians, McClung pitches his only shutout of the season, and does so in every sense of the word. He gives up just four hits over eight innings, walking none and striking out four. The Indians, who coming into the game sported one of the top three offenses in baseball, go down in the Rays' second straight win over Cleveland, one that assures the Rays of their first season series victory over the Tribe.

A Tale of Two Pitching Slots

Such was the tale of the tape on McClung's REAL 2005 season, and by real, I mean only in the starting rotation. Ex-Manager (god, it feels good to say that) Lou Piniella's lame brained decisions over the years pertaining to the handling of McClung reached a low this year, when he stuck Big Red in the bullpen for two months before McClung was sent down to AAA Durham for a few weeks, during which time he pitched relatively poorly splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen, compiling an ERA of 3.93, while allowing a 1.58 WHIP. But after being called back up in late June, he never saw another pitch of bullpen duty. Not surprisingly, here are McClung's splits from last year, when in the bullpen and when in the rotation.

Bullpen (17 games, 18.2 IP)-11.09 ERA, 15:19 K:BB, 2.20 WHIP

Rotation-(17 starts, 83.2 IP)-5.46 ERA, 72:40 K:BB, 1.41 WHIP

The improvement from one category to the next is immense. While you still wouldn't go down the street yelling and bragging about the latter numbers, it is an extraordinary improvement, and goes even further if you take out some of the truly bad apples in McClung's starting portfolio, including the Rangers and Angels games at the beginning of August, the one inning, rain shortened start in late August against Boston, and the Toronto, New York, and Boston starts in September. Once you've erased those six starts from the books, McClung's number look like this:

W/O six starts: 3.12 ERA, 64:29 K:BB, 1.08 WHIP

Yes, I understand that you can't pick and choose your starts, and when you take away almost 30% of his starts, your numbers lose credibility. But the numbers go to prove that it is a few  bad apples spoiling the bunch, all of them in August and September, and that McClung is capable of great things. The stuff is quite obviously there. I don't think there can be any doubt about that. But the numbers are still lagging behind, and if McClung wants to be more than a fourth or fifth starter next season, he will need to improve that. However, us Rays fans who watch McClung every fifth day know that the potential is there.

Splits

While we are still on the topic of the 2005 season, I found some interesting splits on McClung. He is a much, much better pitcher against RHB than he is vs. LHB, even more so than you would suspect his right-handed arm would yield. Against RHB, McClung has a 4.12 ERA, while yielding only five home runs. Against LHB, McClung has a 9.05 ERA, and has yielded 15 home runs. The rest of the splits just back up what the stats earlier said. He is better as a starter and after the All-Star break.

Background

So where did our inconsistent, red-haired fireballer come from? Well, 25 years ago today, that fireballer was born in Lewisberg, West Virginia. Going straight from high school to the pros, McClung was picked in the fifth round of the 1999 MLB amateur draft, the 145th overall pick. His baseball career got off to a rocky start in his second half tenure with Princeton, as McClung made 10 starts and pitched in 13 games overall, bombing to a 7.69 ERA and 2.21 WHIP, while walking two more than he struck out. For this reason, he was held back in 2000, and was once again in the short season leagues, this time with Hudson Valley. And that is where Big Red got Red Hot. McClung made eight starts with the Renegades, pitching to a 1.85 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. He more than doubled his walks in relation to his strikeouts, and began climbing the Rays' organizational ladder reapidly.

McClung is 'Movin on up'

After McClung's shutdown performance is Hudson Valley, he was promoted to the Rays' Single A affiliate in Charleston for the remainder of the season, just six starts, and pitched to a 3.19 ERA and inflated 1.58 WHIP. The ERA was good, but the peripherals told Rays Management that perhaps McClung should be given more time in the Sally League. And so McClung spent the entirety of his 2001 season in Charleston, and finished the year with a 2.79 ERA in 28 starts, while pitching to a 1.19 WHIP. By this point, it was clear that McClung had mastered the Sally League, so in 2002 he was promoted up to the California League and the Bakersfield Blaze. Now, for anyone who follows minor league baseball, the California League is where pitchers go to die. It is the most hitter-friendly league in professional baseball. Yet McClung impressively tamed it with a K:BB of 48:11 and 1.24 WHIP, each a main reason for his Cal League-microscopic 2.92 ERA. But after only seven starts for the Blaze, McClung was promoted to AA Orlando, where he would spend the rest of the season. Now, McClung did hit a road bump against Southern League hitters, making 19 starts and pitching to a skyrocketing 5.37 ERA, which came packaged along with a 1.68 WHIP and poor K:BB. Even despite his struggles in Double A, and having never set foot above the Southern League, something decidedly unexpected happened next spring.

McClung hits it big

Coming into the 2003 spring training season, McClung was just a spring training invite. A non-roster scrub who was just brought along for the hell of it, not really meant to do much of anything. Funny how plans change after an impressive spring. After pitching to a 2.92 ERA in spring 2003, McClung made the major league squad, pitching five games, all in relief, and he probably would have gone into the rotation after awhile, as the likes of Steve Parris and Jim Parque were being weeded out of the Rays' rotation. Alas, after just five games, McClung blew out his shoulder, requiring him to make the dreaded trek to Dr. James Andrews. McClung had a date with Tommy John. And in baseball, have a date with Tommy John is like having a date with the fattest, most acne-infested girl in school. And it takes just about as much time in rehab. McClung was able to get back on the mound professionally in 2004, pitching in Charleston, Montgomery, and Durham, although the 2005 season would be his first since TJ playing in the major leagues.

Outlook

McClung has come too damn far and has too much talent for him to squander it. His main issue has just been consistency. If McClung can manage to be consistent in his performances, like my example earlier without any extremely bad starts, or at the very least, not that many, then he can be a good major league quality pitcher. Right now, he is set to be the Rays' #4 or #5 starter going into the spring, and I think at the very least, that is what his major league career will be. But Big Red has the potential for so much more. If you've ever seen him overpower a hitter with his stuff you know how special he is. Let's hope that by the time I write an article for his 26th birthday, it is about how the Rays can manage to keep McClung amidst all the trade demand. In any case, Happy Birthday Seth, and best of luck in '06.

-Information from The Baseball Cube, and MLB.com was used in this report.