Could Return of Curveball, Changeup Change Jake McGee’s Fate?

By Robbie Knopf

Everyone is in agreement that Jake McGee has a tremendous fastball. But even in a relief role, having only a fastball simply is not enough. For one season, McGee got away with it, managing a 1.95 ERA and a 73-11 strikeout to walk ratio in 55.1 innings in his dominant 2012. But in 2013, McGee’s results were much worse as his ERA jumped to 4.02, his strikeouts went down, his walks went up, and his home runs more than doubled from 0.5 per 9 innings to 1.1. The reason is simple: when you only have one pitch, you better locate it well or you will get hit, even if you’re throwing it 97 MPH.

Jake McGee threw his fastball an unbelievable 93.61% of the time in 2013 according to Brooks Baseball. It is a really good pitch, but no offering is that good. The reason he threw it so much: he did not trust his slider, and that made sense because it was a very bad offering. He famously threw one slider at 88 MPH that went straight up in the zone, not breaking at all. McGee’ slider generated a few swings-and-misses simply because it was not his fastball, but McGee would only trust his fastball in big situations. There were several games where every pitch he threw was a fastball even after the pitch got him into trouble because he knew his slider would not do anything to help. Even after McGee managed a 2.31 ERA in his final 56 appearances of 2013 after a rocky start, it was obvious to everyone that he needed a second pitch. Now, he is finally going something about it.

Marc Topkin reported that McGee is working on reincorporating his curveball and changeup into his arsenal. His history with those two pitches is quite interesting. After his second season in the minor leagues in 2005, McGee’s curveball was described by Baseball America as “one of the best curveballs in the minors, an overhand bender that can be unhittable.” By 2007, it was already described as a “slider” as McGee began to throw it too hard and lose the great break he had on it. After 2010, McGee’s last year as a prospect, his breaking ball was described as “a power curve that becomes slurvy when he gets under it.” But McGee threw a few true curveballs in 2010 and 2011 in the major leagues, and he actually had some success with it, generating a swing-and-miss 22.0% of the time. The issue: he could not throw it for a strike, and he hoped his slider could solve the problem. Evidently it could not. McGee’s changeup, meanwhile, was described as having the potential to become a plus pitch as late as 2009, but McGee was never able to get there and hasn’t even thrown it once in the major leagues. Both McGee’s curveball and changeup once had tremendous potential, and if McGee can find even a fraction of that, it will make him significantly scarier as a pitcher.

The bottom line with Jake McGee is that his fastball will always be his primary pitch by a wide margin, and that is perfectly fine. Hitters fail to square it up almost every time and there will plenty of at-bats where his secondary pitches are not necessary. When McGee’s command is on, throwing his fastball 9 out of 10 times could be his best course of action. But that is not the case every game. Sometimes McGee starts missing his spots and hitters start taking better hacks. When that has happened the past few years, the feeling of impending doom has set in for Rays fans knowing that McGee’s best pitch is not working and he has nothing else. But if his curveball and changeup can make any progress this spring training, suddenly he will be able to survive. All McGee needs to do is give hitters something else to think about. If McGee’s curveball and changeup are just decent, he will get some awkward swings and the opposing batter will have to wonder when he will resort to one of his secondary offerings again. All McGee needs to do is throw his two secondary pitches a combined 15 to 20% of the time–that means he is still throwing his fastball on 80 to 85% of his pitches–and he has the ability to be a dominant reliever again and just maybe a closer. That is not too much to ask.

Jake McGee and the Tampa Bay Rays are not hoping for anything crazy this spring training. All they want is McGee to develop a pitch or two he can trust aside from his fastball, and that is something both necessary for his success and in his capacity to achieve. Jake McGee is finally going to be more than a one-dimensional reliever. Opposing hitters better watch out.