Part one of a two-part series*
Near the end of the 2011 season, Tampa Bay Rays’ manager Joe Maddon explained that baseball players go through five stages once they begin their major-league career:
Stage 1 – I’m happy to be here.
Stage 2 – Survival mode.
Stage 3 – I belong here. I can do this.
Stage 4 – I want to make as much money as possible.
Stage 5 – All I want to do is win
In September, Maddon said two of his own players had entered “stage 3” of their careers. Left-hander Jake McGee along with the right-handed Brandon Gomes rebounded from early season struggles to become – partly out of necessity – high-leverage, late-inning, relief options during the team’s epic run to the playoffs. Their paths to the important third stage were very different; however, their simultaneous arrival could have a long-lasting effect impact on the construction of future bullpens.
For McGee, the third stage was supposed to come prior to the 2011 season. Before Matt Moore was the prized, left-handed, gem on the farm, Jake McGee was a fire-balling left-handed starter with a future as an anchor of the Rays’ rotation. Meanwhile, Tommy John surgery (2008) and a lack of development on secondary options put McGee on the fast track to the bullpen.
By late 2010, McGee’s days as a starter were over and the organization accelerated his transition to the bullpen. Although he was no longer a starter, McGee still possessed electric stuff, creating lofty expectations for McGee – the reliever – heading into 2011. This included the young lefty declaring his candidacy for the team’s closer in spring training.
The thoughts of McGee as the team’s closer were quickly dashed after a rough start in April. The rookie struggled with command and consistency in 11 appearances and was sent to Durham in May. It was in Durham where he was presented specific areas to improve upon: maintaining a consistent delivery to increase velocity and – maybe most importantly – regaining control of his slider.
In the small sample size of April, McGee averaged 93 MPH on his fastball. At the same time, he barely earned a strike with his breaking ball. This was a problem because big-league hitters were not going to offer at pitches they know a pitcher cannot throw for strikes. When speaking about hitters in the American League East, Maddon said “they’re not going to chase stuff. You’ve got to be able to get hitters out within the strike zone. You’ve got to swing and miss.”
Upon his return in mid-July, McGee’s fastball was averaging 96 MPH. In addition to the increased velocity, he was no longer aiming with his slider, but throwing it for strikes and racking up whiffs. After the call up, he threw his slider for a strike 54% of the time (up from 29% in April) and generated a swing and miss 21% of the time (up from 4% in April).
McGee’s 2011 Whiff Rates
McGee was not flawless after returning from the minors. There was a rough stretch in August in which he gave up four home runs in five appearances. In a small sample size, he struggled going against the platoon split (eight walks in 10 innings vs. right-handed batters). Nevertheless, during the final month of the season, he finally entered the third stage.
With Kyle Farnsworth nursing a sore elbow and J.P. Howell battling with bouts of ineffectiveness, McGee appeared in 10 September games. He tossed 9.1 innings, striking out eight batters and walking just one. After the home-run binge in August, he allowed no home runs to the 38 batters he faced in the month.
McGee’s “moment” came on September 18th against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. After starter David Price left the game for precautionary reasons following a line drive off the chest, McGee tossed 2.2 innings of relief. He allowed one run (inherited runner scored after his exit) while striking out David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez, both on filthy sliders.
Although there are no talks of “McGee for closer” heading into 2012, the left-hander could be one of Maddon’s go-to-guys in high-leverage situations. Despite the early season failures of 2011, McGee not only became fully transitioned into a relief role by season’s end, but took a step toward becoming a pitcher and not just a thrower. He will need to continue the development of his secondary offerings; perhaps adding an off-speed pitch to combat the platoon split. That said, with his natural stuff and a competitive make-up, McGee could become a star on the biggest stage.