Jake McGee is finally back for the Tampa Bay Rays. The hard-throwing left-hander appeared in six rehab games for the Triple-A Durham Bulls as he worked his way back from arthroscopic elbow surgery, and the team deemed him ready to return. As he rejoins the Rays’ bullpen, however, there is some reason for trepidation. McGee threw his fastball 96.49% of the time in 2014–if his velocity is down or his command is off, it would hurt him more than most relievers. In addition, there is the simple fact that 2015 is an odd year.
The last six years of McGee’s career have been quite a roller coaster. In 2010, he moved to the bullpen with the Bulls and wound up making the Rays for eight electrifying relief appearances. The expectations were high for him in 2011–some thought he would even be the Rays’ closer as a rookie–but instead, he spent from the end of April to the middle of July in the minors and finished with just a 4.50 ERA in his 37 big league innings.
No one knew what to think regarding McGee entering 2012, but he proceeded to deliver a dominant season, pitching to a 1.95 ERA and a 73-11 strikeout to walk ratio in 55.1 innings pitched. It seemed like he had become an excellent late-inning reliever and that his success was there to stay. Then 2013 came along and he struggled mightily with his command to begin the season. Even once he rebounded, he could only finish with a 4.02 ERA as his strikeout to walk ratio was excellent but he allowed 1.1 homers per 9 innings and nearly 1.5 times as many hits per 9 as he did in 2012.
Given McGee’s strong finish, there was reason for optimism entering last season, and he wound up being just as good as people hoped he would be. He replaced Grant Balfour as the Rays’ closer as he posted a 1.89 ERA and a 90-16 strikeout to walk ratio in 71.1 innings. He was finally closing games and doing so spectacularly. People took for granted that he would be an excellent reliever for the Rays this season after that type of year. The expectation is that he will be, but after the month and a half he missed, yet another odd year will likely end up as a down season for McGee.
The odd years are just a coincidence, but inconsistency has seemingly been a part of the package for McGee from the start. It is extremely difficult to retire major league hitters consistently with just one pitch. It is doable, but we can talk about McGee the same way we discuss Chris Archer so often throwing only two pitches as a starting pitcher. When their velocities reaches their normal heights and they can locate their pitches well, they can dominate. However, if anything is off, the results can be disastrous.
McGee spent time in spring training of 2014 working on his curveball and changeup. People were excited about the prospect of McGee as a three-pitch reliever. Instead, McGee threw his fastball more often than ever and didn’t use the changeup a single time. That doesn’t necessarily mean that McGee lacks trust in those pitches–more likely, his fastball was on all season and he had no reason to throw anything else more than once per week on average.
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That being said, if McGee is going to avoid another extended period of frustration the next time he doesn’t have his best heater, he better be willing to throw his other pitches more. Everyone in the ballpark knows that they are not as effective, but when you throw in the mid-90’s with movement like McGee does, all you need is to give hitters another look to keep them off-balance. When McGee throws his curveball next season, all he needs to do is avoid hanging it. If he simply throws it down in the zone, he may just get a swing-and-miss from a dead-red hitter, and even if he doesn’t, it will make his next fastball harder to hit.
It is a great luxury for the Tampa Bay Rays to have Brad Boxberger as their closer, allowing them to ease Jake McGee back in a little bit. He will still be appearing in high-leverage spots, but he doesn’t have to be at his sharpest right from the start. The hope is that McGee will make any precautions unnecessary before long, but considering his heavy reliance on his fastball, those measures have to be place.