About half-way through May, something strange was going on in Jake McGee‘s world. The 27-year-old reliever was giving up hits and home runs to left-handed hitters. For a lefty with 96 mph gas and a wicked slider, that was out of the norm. But, as most pitchers do over the course of the season, he made an adjustment and figured the problem out. If there ever was one to begin with.
Some of it was general. “Early in the year I made a couple bad pitches in bad locations and pretty much ruined my ERA for the year,” McGee told me before a game with the A’s last week. “It sucks,” he laughed. And his April walk rate was twice the rate he’s put up the rest of the season, so there was a general lack of control.
But against lefties, there was a particular issue. Halfway through May, they were getting on base nearly 44% of the time. He’d given up two home runs to lefties, which was usually his seasonal total. And, yeah, we’re talking about 25 plate appearances and that’s a tiny sample.
It might have been just a poor stretch, but McGee noticed. And he spotted a possible problem. “Early in the year, I was just throwing lefties away, fastballs away — and it hurt me a lot,” he said. Lefty batters were peppering him with singles away. And since McGee throws his fastball so much (almost 93% of the time, up there with Sean Doolittle), location is hugely important. “I kind of use the fastball as multiple pitches, up and down and away and out,” McGee said. He feels important to give batters different perspectives — “If I throw a strike higher in the zone, they have to change their swing.”
So concentrating on throwing lefties away was a bit of a problem. Take a look at his early-season strike zone chart for left-handed hitters first, and then his late-season work below that. The difference is there, especially up and in on the hands of a lefty batter. (The red lines represent the “lefty” strike zone, which shifts a little to the outside part of the plate.)
The difference may not be stark, but it looks like there are more pitches on the inside part of the plate in the late season graph. Establishing both parts of the plate has helped make lefty batters “a little more wary instead of letting them lean over” said McGee. Jason Collette noticed something similar about Jeremy Hellickson and inside fastballs recently, but this isn’t just a Tampa thing, it’s maybe an under-appreciated part of pitching strategy. If a batter feels like he doesn’t have to protect the entire plate, he can ‘look’ for something in a certain area easier.
Jake McGee has been putting on velocity every year he’s been in the bigs, up from 93-plus mph to 96-plus. Some of that is just his role (“being used in the bullpen more” he said), but part of that is growing up. “I’m getting stronger and still growing into my body,” he said, and he’s five pounds heavier this year — muscle he hopes. And though he throws mostly fastballs, he uses deception much like Sean Doolittle with a similar arsenal — “Long arms coming at you” as McGee said. He even tries to vary his times to the plate and the height of his leg kick (“I think that messes with people”).
But part of that deception is just about varying the location of his pitches, and making batters feel they have to protect the entire zone. Re-discovering that fact is part of why his ERA has been almost a full run better in the second half. “To where I have it now, it’s pretty crazy from the first month and a half,” the pitcher admitted. All it took was a little more thought to establishing the inside part of the plate.
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