In 2012, Fernando Rodney delivered a season for the ages, saving 48 games with a 0.60 ERA, a major league record for a minimum of 50 innings pitched. But considering Rodney had managed just a 4.29 ERA, an 8.2 K/9, a 4.8 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in his career entering 2012, it seemed pretty clear that Rodney was a candidate for regression. The Rays had adjusted his position on the mound and he had apparently made a breakthrough with his control, but even if he really had improved, there was no chance he would be remotely as good as he was in 2012 again. Sure enough, Rodney has struggled to begin 2013, managing just an 8.68 ERA in his first 4 appearances, and while that’s a very small sample, it will be very interesting to see how he does. With all the focus on Rodney, though, baseball fans forgot about another prime regression candidate in the Rays bullpen: left-hander Jake McGee.
In 2011, with the Rays’ bullpen situation unsettled, top pitching prospect Jake McGee quickly emerged as a candidate to not just make the Rays’ bullpen out of spring training but emerge as the team’s closer. McGee did make the Rays’ roster to begin the year, but his results were not nearly as good as anyone expected. He was sent back down to the minor leagues at the end of April and wound up managing just a 4.50 ERA in 37 appearances and 28 IP, managing an 8.7 K/9 and a 3.9 BB/9, both solid, but a horrific 1.6 HR/9. In 2012, though, McGee was a man on a mission and pitched better than anyone could have thought. Tossing 55.1 innings across 69 appearances, McGee blew away hitters to the tune of a 1.95 ERA, an 11.9 K/9, a 1.8 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9. He emerged as Joe Maddon‘s fireman, the pitcher he could rely on to get out of any jam that the Rays encountered prior to the 9th inning, and he dominated righties and lefties alike, with lefties managing a .259/.289/.376 line against him while righty batters were completely lost, putting up just a .098/.157/.134 line. After a season like that, we were sure that McGee had lived up to his potential and had become a pitcher that the Rays could rely on in the back of their bullpen for years to come. This season, however, has been an entirely different story.
So far in 2013, McGee has gone just 0-1 with a 7.36 ERA, a 12.3 K/9, a 6.1 BB/9, and a 2.5 HR/9 in 9 appearances and 7.1 innings pitched. It’s a small sample size and every pitcher has their struggles, but this is extreme and there may be serious reason for concern. Watching McGee, a major issue has been an over-reliance in his fastball and a lack of faith in his second pitch, his slider. In his Opening Day collapse, McGee threw 25 pitches, all fastballs, as he allowed 5 runs in just 0.2 innings, and he also threw just 2 flat sliders among 18 pitches as he allowed a Steve Pearce home run on April 18th that turned a 5-4 Rays lead into a 6-5 deficit. He was able to escape his April 21st outing unscathed, but he walked the first two batters he faced on 4 pitches each as he threw 8 straight fastballs out of the zone and threw fastballs for all 22 of his pitches in that game. We know that McGee’s fastball is a devastating pitch in the mid-90’s, but hitters can get a beat on it if he throws it every single pitch. Why is McGee relying so much on his fastball and can he find a way to get back to his effectiveness from last year?
Something scary is that McGee’s pitch usage overall in 2013 is not so different from where it was in 2012. Per Brooks Baseball, McGee threw 88% fastballs and 12% sliders in 2012, while in 2013 he’s at 91% and 9%. But why has his performance dropped so significantly and why hasn’t he gone to his slider in big spots? McGee’s fastball has basically been the exact same pitch from 2012 to 2011. Here’s a quick table illustrating just how similar they have been.
McGee’s fastball has been just slightly worse in 2013, missing the zone and forcing swings-and-missing just a little less and, most notably, staying up in the zone too often, leading to too much hard contact. McGee is throwing his fastball a touch more often, and combining that with McGee’s command not being as sharp as usual has led to much of McGee’s troubles. But why is he throwing his fasball more often if it hasn’t been as good? The answer is that his slider has been terrible. Here’s the same table as before for his slider, and this time, the parallels are hard to find.
The velocity increase makes it clear what’s going on here: McGee is overthrowing his slider. McGee is a pitcher that rears back and delivers well above-average velocity on his fastball, and toning it down on his slider has not gone well. There is nothing wrong with throwing a hard slider, and it may an adjustment worth making for McGee after his slider was a good, not great, pitch for him last year. The problem arises from the fact that this is happening completely unintentionally, causing McGee to completely lose control of it. At times it has not looked anything like a strike and in other cases, it has hung up in the zone. In the April 18th game referenced above, McGee threw an 88 MPH slider that went straight up in the zone and didn’t break at all. Another pitcher would have called it an fastball up in the zone in an attempt to get the hitter to chase. Look where that pitch ended up.
Why is this happening? How has Jake McGee completely lost track of where his slider is going? If McGee’s velocity was more in line with his career norms, we could dismiss this as just losing his feel of the pitch for a few games, but given the velocity difference, there has to be something going on. The answer could trace back to spring training. This spring, McGee went through a phase where his fastball velocity was down, leading to a string of horrific outings quite similar to the way the regular season started for him. Joe Maddon insisted the entire time that McGee would be fine, and sure enough his velocity is completely back now. However, with his fastball not up to his usual levels for most of the spring, maybe McGee was putting more effort into his delivery in an attempt to compensate, and that additional effort has not completely gone away, messing up his slider. Aside from that, McGee was working particularly hard on fixing the issue with his fastball, and maybe in doing that his slider got lost in the wayside. Between those two factors, McGee’s slider just isn’t where it needs to be at this point and McGee has to find a way to change that as soon as he possibly can.
Hard to believe it now, but not that long ago, Jake McGee was a starting pitching prospect with as much upside as any in the entire Rays organization. Armed with an electric mid-90’s fastball, a dynamic slider, and also a solid changeup, McGee blew by hitters in A-ball, going 15-15 with a 3.05 ERA, an 11.4 K/9, a 3.8 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 in 52 starts and 274 innings pitched split primarily between Low-A and High-A. McGee was like Matt Moore before Matt Moore, a hard-throwing lefty with an electric arsenal to dream on, and the Rays believed that he would turn into something special. That Jake McGee has long gone at this point. However, that doesn’t mean that McGee has to forget everything that made him so successful as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues. Just because McGee is a reliever now doesn’t mean that he has to throw all fastballs. His slider can be a good pitch and maybe more, and if he uses it often enough and gets it in the back of hitters’ minds, it can make his fastball even more unhittable. He hasn’t thrown a changeup in a major league game the last three years, but why not bring it back at some point and just give hitters another pitch to contend with?
Jake McGee is a hard-thrower and an awfully good one, but he doesn’t have to be simply that. Hitters can adjust after they see enough fastballs in a row, even at 96 MPH, and that’s even more the case after the league got a full season of data on McGee in 2012. If McGee is going to approach his 2012 numbers ever again, he has to make an adjustment of his own, and the key will be developing his slider as a second pitch he can depend on and maybe even working in a third pitch like a changeup. McGee’s start to the 2013 season has elucidated that his fastball can only do so much for him moving forward. If Jake McGee is going to return to dominance for the Rays now and reach his potential of becoming a dominant closer over the next few years, his secondary pitches have to come along significantly. After seeing the way hitters have flailed at McGee’s fastball so often the past couple of years, just imagine how good he can be when hitters are sitting dead-red on his fastball and all of sudden he delivers a sharp-breaking slider down in the zone.