Tampa's Shane McClanahan Could Be Emerging As An Ace

Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Angels
Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Angels / Ronald Martinez/GettyImages

Southpaw Shane McClanahan was no stranger to Tampa Bay when he was drafted by the Rays with the 31st overall pick of the 2018 Major League Baseball draft. McClanahan grew up approximately two and a half hours south of Tropicana Field, growing up in Cape Cod before being drafted by the New York Mets in the late rounds of the 2015 draft. McClanahan forego playing in Queens as he moved to Tampa and attended the University of South Florida.

McClanahan couldn't have joined his local team on a bigger stage, thrown into the fire with the team on the precipice of history. Teams had to resort to rather unusual roster moves amidst the 2020 COVID-19 season and it resulted in McClanahan becoming the first pitcher in MLB history to make his MLB debut in the postseason. McClanahan pitched a scoreless frame in the World Series in just his fourth MLB appearance.

Shane McClanahan was solid in his first campaign of MLB work in 2021, featuring a 3.43 ERA and 141 strikeouts in just over 123 innings of work, complimented by a 3.31 FIP and presenting a dominant 10.9 K-per-9. This was enough for the Rays brass to tab him as the 2022 Opening Day starter, albeit with a number of rotation stalwarts on the injured list to open the season, including Tyler Glasnow and Yonny Chirinos, as well as rookie phenom Shane Baz.

McClanahan's season started rocky, nailing All-Star centerfielder Cedric Mullins on the first pitch of the season, but from that point forward McClanahan has been splendid. McClanahan has been one of the top pitchers in baseball over the first five weeks. Let's take a peak at a recent start against the Angels:

Every pitch McClanahan threw in the outing, which was dominant with 11 Ks, one BB and zero runs allowed, is showcased in the video above. The fastball, which can be pulled at times due to his mechanics, sits between 96-101, with a slider in the high eighties, a curveball in the low eighties and change-up in the mid eighties. He mixes his pitches well, and all of them are plus pitches that miss bats.

In fact, earlier this week a popular Rays Twitter fan account (@WanderToHOF) curated a thread breaking down some of McClanahan's pitches. In 2021, McClanahan threw sixteen fastballs that clocked 100 mph or higher on the gun, fourth most for a starter in baseball behind only mulit-time Cy Young recipient Jacob deGrom (186), Marlins' stud Sandy Alcantara (58) and $300M man Gerrit Cole (30). So far this year, it's been even more lethal as he's added 0.6 to his average fastball velocity. Sugar Shane throws the heater 35.4% of the time and its average velocity is in the 94th percentile, per Baseball Savant. To say that McClanahan's fastball has been elite would be an understatement, but it's the wipeout breaking stuff in his repertoire that's exploiting the weaknesses of hitters, seeing as all but 11 of his Ks in 2022 have come on a secondary pitch.

As a prospect, it was the filthy curveball that stole the headlines, but in 2022 a majority of Shane's damage is coming off of the change, surrendering just one hit this year off of a changeup he's thrown on 133 occasions. The primary difference in his sophomore season may actually be the changeup, seeing as its frequency has skyrocketed. McClanahan threw 157 changeups in total in 2021, though it was a formidable pitch, as he only gave up 11 hits off of the changeup in 2021. The glaring issue with Shane's changeup, however, is that he's never thrown a changeup to a left-handed hitter in his career, showing a lack of confidence in the pitch, too much so to make it his number two pitch. Its overall usage, however, is up 11% as he uses more of his pitches to keep hitters guessing at the plate, showing more of a pitching prowess than in the previous season.

McClanahan's curveball is the number two pitch this season, thrown on over 26% of pitches delivered. With the slider usage ticking down, the curveball usage has been up by ten percent. The curveball starts at the same point of release as his fastball, at a significantly slower pace and bottoms out right as it reaches the plate with incredible break, making it one of the most dangerous pitches in the league in 2022. The spin rate on his curveball is 2659, with the average spin rate on a curveball sitting around 2500. The swing and miss rate on McClanahan's curveball is over 40%, 8% above the median curveball swing and miss rate for the league. The pitch simply misses bats at an elite rate.

You can see the overlay of the fastball, which speeds up the closer it gets to the plate, and the curveball at the same point. The curveball averages 53 inches of vertical drop and nine inches of vertical movement, making it near impossible to hit if you aren't sitting on a curveball and haven't already calibrated the pitch.

His number four pitch, which was good enough to be relied on as his number two pitch in 2021, is the slider. He's thrown it 20% less than in 2021, but the percentages thrown against lefties is higher in 2022. While it's still a weapon for righties to consider as it's not exclusively used vs. southpaws, a la the change with right-handers, it does become easier to eliminate. He's only given up six hits against the slider, despite throwing it 116 times. His number four pitch garners a .194 batting average against and puts batters away 30% of the time it's thrown, giving him four decisive options at the plate when trying to put a hitter away, keeping hitters on their toes the entire game.

While keeping hitters in postulation, McClanahan is second in the American League in strikeouts, first in strikeout percentage and second in groundball percentage. Combine his groundball percentage with a hard-hit percentage in the 66th percentile, a majority of the contact McClanahan does yield is comparatively weak to the rest of the league.

One thing that should come into question is McClanahan's workload, though. The Rays have a deep history of revolutionizing the way pitchers are used and that includes inning limitationsꟷto the point where when Blake Snell won his Cy Young award in 2018, he became only the second starting pitcher in MLB history to win the award while hurling fewer than 200 innings, with the first being Clayton Kershaw's triple crown year where the future Hall of Famer ended at less than two innings shy of the threshold.

McClanahan averaged under five innings per start in 2021, but in his league-leading eight starts in 2022 he's already pitched 46 and a third innings of work, averaging closer to six innings than five innings. If the Rays slowly but surely continue to allow him to pitch deeper into ballgames, then he's emerged as a frontline ace in only his second MLB season.

Analytically, all of this combined has led to a huge breakthrough for McClanahan. He's posted a 144 ERA+ (100 is league average, meaning he's been 44% better than average pitcher in baseball thus far), the number one SIERA in the league (1.97, the lower the better and 3.75 is considered above average) and the number one xFIP in the league (1.85).

How does a tremendous sabermetric line translate to more traditional metrics for our statistically-inclined folks? Rather well, considering his ERA is 2.33, he strikes out nearly 13 batters for every nine innings he performs and walks under 2 in those aforementioned innings.

It's been a strong body of work so far, granted it's a small sample size, for the young lefty. Over his first 33 career stars, McClanahan has a 3.13 cumulative ERA and over 200 punch outs in what's just about the equivalent to a 162 game stretch for a starting pitcher. That's Cy Young Award production in some seasons and he's only going to get better from here.

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