Is Jake McGee ready for primetime?


Entering 2011, Jake McGee was expected to make a big impact on the Rays season. He was surely going to start the season in the major league bullpen, and respected people were saying that maybe he should be the Rays’ closer. Instead, McGee got off to a bad start to the season, posting a 5.14 ERA and a 5.77 FIP in 11 April relief appearances, walking more than he struck out, and he was sent back down to Triple-A Durham in an attempt to ameliorate the situation. Back in Durham, McGee was successful, posting a 2.70 ERA and a 3.16 FIP. McGee put up a very good 10.3 K/9 and a nice 2.2 BB/9, but also a bad 1.1 HR/9.  Nevertheless, the Rays brought him back to the major leagues in July, but McGee wasn’t too much better the rest of the season, posting a 4.29 ERA, and a 4.58 FIP. On the season, McGee went 5-2 with a 4.50 ERA, a 4.70 FIP, a 4.18 xFIP, an 8.7 K/9, a 3.9 BB/9, a 1.6 HR/9, and 4 holds while pitching under a .74 aLI (just 74% of the league’s average pressure of 1.0) in 37 relief appearances and 28 IP. The good news was that his xFIP shows that his ridiculously high HR/9 was a fluke, especially since he pitched 23 of his 37 games at the Trop, but he simply did not pitch as well as everyone thought he would.

There was one intruiging statistical anomaly regarding McGee in 2011: despite his inconsistency the entire season, he recorded holds every single time he was put into a save situation. That could just be another argument against the terminology of a “save situation” or you could interpret it positively: when games were really on the line, McGee lived up to the challenge. But either way, we know that Jake McGee has the ability to pitch a whole lot better than he did in 2011. But will it actually happen?

No matter how advanced stats become, there’s always a certain amount of chance variation that occurs- especially when we’re talking about a sample size as small as the 28 innings across 37 games that McGee logged in 2011. Let’s look at the Pitch F/X data from McGee’s 2011, and we’ll see what conclusions we can make.

(If you’ve never seen a graph like this before, please check out this post (scroll down to right below the similar looking graph) to see an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Looking at the key, we see something pretty alarming: McGee threw his fastball over 80% of the time. Looking at the fastball’s movement, it was a pretty dynamic pitch, showing nice upward and horizontal movement away from lefty batters at 95 MPH. But he used it so much that hitters could sit dead-red every single pitch, and that’s the real reason why they hit so many home runs off of McGee. Looking at Fangraph’s Pitch Values, McGee’s fastball registered a 3.4 runs below average, and his slider, which seems pretty unimpressive on our Pitch F/X graph, comes in at 1.8 runs above average. The slider was only effective because McGee was using it so little compared to his fastball and hitters never expected McGee to throw the pitch.

But here’s the thing about McGee’s slider: it’s more accurately called a slurve. Its movement had a ton of variation in its movement between a slider and curveball. Here’s a few examples of how McGee’s slider moved in 2011.

If I gave you that movement graph and told you in the key that the pitches in the graph are a fastball, a changeup, a slider, a curveball and a screwball, you would probably believe me. And these movement lines are only from games in which McGee threw his slider at least 3 times, so it’s not like I just am showing you a couple of random pitches that slipped out of McGee’s hand. McGee’s breaking ball flashed plus-plus (the orange line) and showed some plus movement otherwise. But sometimes the pitch didn’t move at all, showing movement like the average movement line above (the red line in the first Pitch F/X graph), or even a few times so little movement you couldn’t even see the line if I put it on the graph. If McGee can get more consistent movement on his breaking ball, it will help him exponentially and it will be a more effective pitch, allowing him to throw it more often and make his fastball more effective as well. Even if his breaking ball continues to be a slurve that alternates between a slider and curveball, as long as he can get consistent movement, he’ll be fine. Think of it this way: in this age of scouting reports, most of the time you know how a pitcher’s pitches move, but if McGee’s breaking ball could look the same way coming out of the hand and then move in a variety of ways, it will be a tough pitch for pitchers to handle- as long as it moves enough most of the time. Having a net movement of just half an inch away from a lefty batter and just a couple inches up like he did on average in 2011 won’t cut it. He has to get more movement on his breaking ball or major league hitters will continue taking advantage of his fastball, no matter how dynamic it is.

Jake McGee needs to get some more consistent movement on his breaking ball, and if he can do that, he’ll be an effective middle reliever. His fastball in the mid-90’s is a great pitch, but he needs another pitch to complement it. His breaking ball can definitely be that pitch. I wouldn’t be surprised if McGee goes back to using his changeup, a pitch he used sparingly as a starter in the minors, just to give hitters another pitch to think about, but the real key for him will be to get more consistent movement on his slurve. If McGee can just do that, he’ll become a reliever that Joe Maddon will not be afraid to use in any situation, and maybe an opportunity to close could come for him at some point in the future.