Insider: Davis, McGee, Rodney Star on Big Stage

In February, I spoke about Joe Maddon’s five-stage plan for major-league players:

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.

Looking at the early portion of the season, we have seen three pitchers at three different points of their careers, staring on stage three for the Tampa Bay Rays. For Jake McGee, who arrived to stage three last season, it has been a continued process of feeling like he can do this – meaning pitch effectively at the highest level. For his former roommate, Wade Davis, this year has been more about belonging. Davis already knows he can get outs, but as the rotation outcast, he has to learn how to fit into a major-league bullpen. Meanwhile, “finisher” Fernando Rodney is not only showing he belongs in high-leverage situations, but is proving that he can once again be productive.

Similar to last season, McGee initially struggled out of the gate in 2012. In his first four games, he allowed an equal number of baserunners (5) as outs recorded (5). Since then, the 25-year-old has looked like a budding relief ace. In seven appearances, he has allowed just three hits and one walk over six innings. After striking out just one batter in his first 10 plate appearances, he has 10 punch outs in his last 22; small sample sizes all around, but still encouraging results.

McGee is still heavily reliant on his fastball, but has had much better control as of late. In his first few appearances, he was about 60/40 in strike-to-ball ratio. In his most recent appearances, he has upped his strike rate to around 65% and has really improved his ability to throw strikes with the fastball. In this latest stretch of games, he is generating a strike on nearly 75% of his heaters. The left-hander has benefited from facing mostly left-handers, but has had some success against right-handers. Much like McGee, the 2012 season is young, but it is becoming increasingly clear he is comfortable on stage three.

Wade Davis has felt like he belongs in the majors for a while; however, also feels like he belongs in the rotation. Despite his desire to start, the right-hander has been very good in limited time as a reliever. In 12 innings out of thebullpen, he has 11 strikeouts while allowing just three earned runs and two walks.

While some starters condense their repertoire as a reliever, Davis still throws the same four pitches: fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. Meanwhile, the usage of those four pitches has changed a bit. He still throws the same amount of fastballs, but has slightly decreased the number of breaking balls in favor of more changeups.

In 2011, Davis’ changeup was barely a major-league pitch. He threw it less than 5% of the time; most of those to left-handed batters. On the rare occasion he did throw it, it went for a strike less than one-third of the time. This season, Davis has thrown the pitch 13% of the time according to brooksbaseball.net. The pitch is still not generating many strikes (~50%); however, it does appear to be messing with the timing of opposing batters.

Despite the low percentage of overall strikes, Davis is getting a fair amount of foul balls with the changeup. Perhaps as a byproduct, he is getting more whiffs on his fastball. To the hitter, the pitches likely look similar out of the release (especially the two-seamer), but have differences in movement and velocity. Even if the off-speed pitch is not missing bats like James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson, it could be frustrating batters in another way. As the season goes on, it will be interesting to see if Davis’ transition includes more high-leverage situations.

Fernando Rodney has probably never uncomfortable on the major-league stage; however, his results over the past few seasons have been more replacement level than relief ace. Yet, it appears as if the 35-year-old is dentine to become the latest rags-to-riches story to emerge from the right-field bullpen at Tropicana Field.

In his first 12.1 innings with the Rays, Rodney has struck out 12 batters while walking just two. Prior to this season, he averaged nearly five walks per nine innings – or about one every other inning. In 2011, he walked (28) more batters than he struck out (26) in 32 innings.

Though the results are extremely different, Rodney’s adjustments have been subtle. He has all but scrapped his slider; instead, he has focused on a devastating bread-and-butter (or pan y mantequilla) combination of fastballs and changeups. Aside from the usage, a simple slide across the rubber has seeming led to better fastball control.

Although we cannot quantify just how much of an effect his move from the third-base side of the rubber to the first-base side has had, it is unlikely his newly found ability to throw strikes is a coincidence. Once more, we are dealing with an extremely small sample size; however, Rodney has thrown a strike 67% of the time this season compared to 57% last year. After working mostly up and away to left-handers and inside to right-handers, he is painting the outside corner against batters on both sides.

Rodney’s tracking record of wildness is much more expansive than his as a strike-thrower. On the other hand, the performance of relief pitchers tends to fluctuate more than any other position. And while the Samana Express has had nearly a decade of unstability, the Rays are only asking for a season or two of control.

We are not even at the quarter-mark of the 2012 season, and bullpen performance is volatile in nature, but McGee, Davis, and Rodney are proving themselves worthy of more stage time.

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