Underrated reliever: Jake McGee


In the first edition of a three-part series on bullpen beasts lacking national respect, Tampa Bay Rays’ left-handed closer Jake McGee will be examined as an underrated and valuable reliever. Career inconsistency and playing for a small market team prevent McGee from household name status, but his 2014 season and defined identity give reason to believe he has staying power as a late-inning horse.

That inconsistency should be noted initially. In a 37-game 2011 season, he allowed five home runs in 28 innings pitched and put up a 4.50 ERA. In 2012, McGee became dominant. His ERA was 1.95 and he struck out 73 hitters in 55 1/3 innings pitched. The next year, inconsistency loomed. His ERA crept to 4.02 and his WHIP went from 0.80 to 1.18. Take a wild guess at what happened in 2014. He racked up 90 strikeouts, posted a 1.89 ERA and developed into Tampa Bay’s full-time closer.

We have two below average seasons and two years of dominance. The trends are in McGee’s favor though. FanGraphs currently projects the closer to save 28 games, post a 2.23 ERA and total 80 strikeouts in 65 games during 2015. This would put him in the range of his 2012 and 2014 runs. Why can this be expected and in turn how does this make McGee underrated? Because he’s a man who throws his 96 mph fastball on average 96% of the time. Poetic, absolutely, but much more than just that. Late-inning lefties who aren’t traditional specialists are rare. Sean Doolittle‘s another and his rise is on the way, but McGee’s fastball is far scarier.

Through FanGraphs’ Pitchf/x section, which essentially details the type of pitches a hurler throws and how batters perform against individual pitches, we can more deeply analyze the value of McGee’s fastball. This tool also follows movement, release point and additional aspects of a given pitch offering. McGee’s four-seam heater ranged from 91.4 mph to 100.2 mph in 2014. His two-seamer drifted between 92 mph and 99.8 mph. Opponents hit .184 against the four-seamer and .173 against the two-seam action.

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  • Batters tend to square up the ball when sitting on hard stuff, right? McGee threw 705 four-seam fastballs in 2014, only two left the yard. Out of his 399 two-seamers, not once was he taken deep. And the first bomb he allowed didn’t even come until September. Advanced metrics can become hard to accurately asses, but McGee’s loyalty to his heater makes viewing his strengths easier. He’s not a one-pitch pitcher, he’s a pitcher with one pitch that’s astonishingly difficult to face.

    Beyond its devastating traits, the cheese from McGee’s left arm actually prefers opposing right-handed hitters. In 2014, McGee’s splits display that he only pitched 19 innings against lefties and threw 52 1/3 frames against righties. Right-handers batted .169, reached base at a .232 clip and slugged .220 against McGee. Lefties were higher in each category, but even the heightened numbers such as a .267 on-base percentage indicate McGee’s prowess. How many late-inning relievers are lefties, and how many of those lefties pitch over 50 innings against righties in a single year?

    This is part of where McGee’s underrated status lives. He’s unique. He’s possibly unlike any other reliever in baseball. Late-inning southpaw, near exclusively a fastball hurler who is the exact opposite of a lefty-on-lefty specialist. With arbitration control for three more years, Tampa Bay has an affordable monster on its hands. Don’t be surprised if McGee makes an All-Star appearance in 2015 even after elbow surgery and becomes the recipient of countless trade inquiries. A 28-year-old with just 222 1/3 MLB innings tossed who doesn’t throw breaking balls? Sure, his longevity can be more safely banked on than most relievers in the game. Until a wider audience appreciates McGee’s talent though, he classifies as an underrated bullpen force.

    Next: Nationals sign Uggla to minor league deal