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Rays season preview: Jake McGee

There are reinforcements coming for the depleted Rays.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The Rays opening day pitching staff was far from the one fans hoped to see this year, with four starting pitchers and the closer beginning the season on the disabled list. That means that the first month or so of the season is about not falling too far behind, because help is coming. Let's take a look at what the Rays will be getting back.

The Rays selected Jake McGee in the fifth round of the 2004 MLB Draft. According to his MLB.com draft profile, his fastball sat in the upper 80's, and he had questionable secondary pitches at the time of his selection.

As he got older and filled out his frame, he added significant velocity to his fastball, reaching the mid 90's. In the low minors, McGee was sharp, racking up high strikeout totals and climbing up prospect lists.

However, he was plagued by elbow problems and sent for Tommy John surgery in 2008, which sidelined him for the rest of the 2008 season and a large part of 2009. A year after his return, McGee was shifted from the rotation to the bullpen, with the hope of him being an impact reliever for the playoffs.  He shined in this role, striking out 27 batters in 17.1 innings in his first stint in the bullpen.

While in the ‘pen from 2010-2013, McGee had been used in increasingly high leverage situations, and continued to post high strikeout rates and to shut down hitters. Despite his dominance, McGee didn't claim the closer's role even though he was arguably the Rays' best reliever. This led many to believe that the Rays were trying to suppress his arbitration cost by giving veterans the save opportunities instead. After Grant Balfour's performance cratered in 2014, McGee was finally given the chance to close. He, as expected, was dominant, and emerged as one of the best young closers in baseball.

But, McGee fell victim to another elbow ailment, as he needed surgery to have loose bodies removed this winter.  The original timetable aimed for a late April or early May return, and recent reports indicate that he is on schedule.

The long-term impact of loose body removal surgeries is unclear. A study conducted by Dr. Steven B. Cohen in 2011 indicated that some players were unable to return to their previous performance after this procedure. However, this particular study used players from a wide range of performance levels and small sample size. Based on positive reports from spring training, I'm inclined to believe that McGee should return to pre-surgery levels, but it's not a sure thing.

Let's take a look at McGee's arsenal and the implications for 2015.

Fastball

McGee's fastball has always been the best weapon in his arsenal. In 2014, he threw it 96.49% of the time, which was most often by all pitchers in the majors. Even though batters can be pretty sure they know what pitch is coming, McGee's fastball continues to be dominant.

Instead of losing velocity, like pitcher aging curves suggest, McGee has been throwing his fastball with more velocity as he gets older. This most likely comes from getting more and more comfortable with his shift from the rotation to the bullpen, where he doesn't need to be concerned with lasting for six or seven innings.

In addition to blistering speed, McGee has a "typical Rays fastball," which has been covered extensively during this offseason. His fastball has a large amount of "rise", meaning it doesn't drop as much as other fastballs do. This causes the fastball to stay above the hitters bat, and often results in them swinging below it and whiffing.

Approach

Against left handed hitters, McGee threw his fastball outside and up in the strike zone. He drew decent whiffs when the pitch was high, largely in part due to the rising action of the fastball. However, when the pitch was outside, lefties rarely chased it. This is illustrated in the following heat maps, which show usage, swing rates, and whiffs/swing for McGee's fastball against lefties.

Against righties, McGee's usage patterns were more spread out. He primarily threw this pitch up and away, but it isn't a concentrated distribution like there is against lefties. The whiffs that he generates against right-handed hitters are tremendous, and explain much of his success. McGee's fastballs that are up and away are essentially unhittable, and are very difficult to lay off of as a hitter.

In addition to whiffs, McGee's fastball has generated many foul balls. I'm a little hesitant to say that drawing foul balls is a skill that a pitcher can repeat, because so much of the "credit" for a foul ball comes from the hitter. However, McGee has been generating fouls on fastballs in the strike zone at an astounding rate. Last year, batters fouled off 152 of the 452 fastballs that McGee threw in the zone, or 33.4% of the pitches. This was top 20 among relievers, and just 10 foul balls away from being seventh overall.

Looking at previous years, McGee's 2014 foul ball rate was significantly lower than it was in the past, as demonstrated by this table.

Season Foul%, Fastballs in Strike Zone
2014 33.4%
2013 38.23%
2012 40.79%
2011 39.96%

According to Steve Staude's article from Fangraphs, foul balls have a .54 year-to-year correlation, which suggests that McGee may be able to repeat his foul ball tendencies.

Because of the movement and velocity of his fastball, it makes sense that he would be able to draw a lot of fouls. By pitching up and in the zone and not having much drop on the pitch, he would cause batters to swing under it. While many miss it, it makes sense that some batters make contact on the bottom half of the ball, propelling it backwards.

McGee gets "free" strikes from these fouls that aren't represented in his whiff rates. As he generates more strikes from foul balls, he can put hitters in unfavorable counts, decreasing their chances of success.

Essentially, McGee's fastball dominance in the strike zone can be summed up in one picture:

The rising action on his fastball contributes to the whiffs and fouls, and great control paired with framing from Jose Molina and others helped contribute to the called strikes.

Even though hitters know what's coming, McGee's fastball is too much for them to handle—75% of the time, it goes for a strike.

Secondary Pitches

Despite his elite fastball, McGee has struggled to find a viable secondary option. He came out of high school throwing a curve, but as he got bigger and gained velocity, his slow curve developed into a hard curve. This velocity increase led him to transition to a slider, which fit the new velocity better.

The slider was used sparingly, being thrown 12.33% and 6.38% times in 2012 and 2013, respectively. It was mediocre at best, and hovered below league average in both whiffs and groundballs.

But, as Danny wrote in last season's preview, McGee switched from the slider back to the curveball going into the 2014 season.

In general, McGee kept his curveball down and away to both lefties and righties. While it's hard to judge effectiveness in such a small sample, it didn't get pounded like his slider had. It was mainly a "show me" pitch, and just something for hitters to think about.

Looking at monthly splits of his usage of this pitch, he threw it less as the season went on.

This may be because it was ineffective, or he didn't have confidence with the pitch. He did have instances where it worked out perfectly, like this:

Video from MLB.com's YouTube Channel.

While his fastball is dominant, developing a secondary pitch would keep hitters off balance and is important in his development and his aging as a pitcher. His curveball was a minor upgrade from his slider of years past, and has hope for future growth.

2015 Season

W L SV G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2014 Statistics 5 2 19 73 71.1 11.36 2.02 0.25 ,280 80.7% 38.0% 2.9% 1.89 1.73 2.58 2.6
2015 Steamer Projections 4 3 24 65 65.0 11.10 2.74 0.70 .280 79.2% --- --- 2.47 2.69 --- 1.7

Steamer has McGee projected for another strong year, with an uptick in home run rate causing the rise in ERA. This is understandable, as his HR/FB rate last year was 2.9%, which was well-below league average. The rise in ERA nearly mirrors his xFIP from 2014, suggesting that the base skills should repeat from last season.

The biggest storyline heading into the season is the status of his elbow. The bullpen situation is still a little muddled, but it looks like Brad Boxberger and Kevin Jepsen will be able to hold down the late innings roles until McGee returns. As long as the surgery doesn't cut into his performance, McGee should continue to be one of the best closers in the league, even if he has uncommon means of doing so.

Statistics used are from FanGraphs, Pitch F/x data is from BrooksBaseball.net.