What a difference a year makes–and for Jake McGee, that’s not a good thing. In 2013, he allowed 12 earned runs all season on his way to a 1.95 ERA. So far in 2013, he has allowed 13 earned runs already, leaving his ERA at just 10.64. McGee would have to toss 49 straight scoreless innings to get his ERA back to where it was last season. McGee is missing bats like crazy, striking out 17 batters in 11 innings, but he’s allowing a ton of hits (13.5 H/9), way too many walks (6.5 BB/9), and a scary amount of home runs (2.5 HR/9). What is going wrong? McGee’s fastball is a few ticks below where it was last season according to Brooks Baseball, coming in at 97.54 MPH compared to his his 98.45 career mark. But really, the major issue is his command of the pitch. McGee’s groundball to flyball ratio on his fastball is just 1.14 to 1 compared to just 1.70 for his career, and the more flyballs, but that’s the least of McGee concerns. 40% of the batted balls McGee has allowed on his fastball have been line drives, nearly double his career mark, as he’s missing his spots and hitters are making him pay big-time. Joe Maddon, though, believes that McGee will get by those struggles and be just fine without any major changes.
“I think that’s overstated,” Maddon said. “Everybody keeps talking about that. Last year, he pretty much went wall-to-wall with the fastball. I really believe that he just needs to get his velocity back where it had been, which it’s in there, and then the location of his fastball. Those are the two biggest items with Jake that I believe to this point have been off.”
“When you see a guy struggling — and again, he hasn’t been pummeled — I don’t want him to get it in his head that he has to do something different, when he doesn’t. He has to just be Jake. If he wants to continue to work on that other pitch, I’m fine with that. But his success is always going to be routed in him throwing a good fastball that rides, and he throws it where he wants to. To try to recreate himself right now, I think would be not very wise. I disagree with that 100 percent.”
McGee has a dominating enough fastball that hitters don’t stand a chance when he puts it where he wants to. But McGee simply hasn’t been able to do that so far this season and the results have been disastrous. But how much of his struggles aren’t simply from missing with this fastball but overusing it?
If you said that Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds has the best fastball in baseball, you wouldn’t get too much of an argument. Chapman has been unhittable as the Reds’ closer, managing a 1.66 ERA, a 15.0 K/9, a 3.5 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 since the start of the 2012 season with a fastball that has hit as high as 105 MPH. How often does Chapman throw that incredible fastball? Per Brooks Baseball, 88% of the time in 2012 and 86% in 2013. So far in 2013, Jake McGee is all the way up at 92%. That doesn’t seem like a major difference, but when he’s throwing so few secondary pitches, each one counts a lot more. Chapman and McGee have thrown almost an identical amount of pitches, 258 for Chapman and 253 for McGee. Chapman has thrown 37 pitches that weren’t fastballs while McGee has thrown just 21. McGee is throwing fastball, fastball, fastball, and there’s nothing to prevent hitters from sitting on it every time if he doesn’t show hitters anything else.
Last Friday, Jake McGee mixed in a pitch that Pitch F/X identified as a changeup for the first time. He threw it three times at an average of 88.44 MPH and got swings-and-misses on it twice with hitters sitting dead-red on his fastball. That is all McGee needs. Between his changeup and slider, McGee just has to toy with hitters just enough to give him some margin for error. His fastball is his bread and butter and if he can’t command it moving forward, he will continue to be hit hard. But mixing in the occasional secondary pitch only makes his entire repertoire and will give hitters an even tougher time than he has given them the past couple of years once he gets on track. As Joe Maddon said, Jake McGee doesn’t suddenly need to change his entire approach on the mound. But throwing just an occasional breaking pitch once every 7 or 8 pitches could go a long way, and that’s an adjustment he has to make, especially with him struggling as much as he is now.