Folks tend to imagine every pitching prospect with an explosive fastball in the bullpen. As well as David Price pitched at Vanderbilt and in the minors as a starter, there are at least a half-dozen posts in the DRB archives defending him from a bullpen position (for extended periods, not the 2008 stint). Matt Moore may receive that treatment heading forward too. It’s like human nature. See a hot fastball then commence dreaming of the one, two, three ninth innings.
Jake McGee is a bit different. McGee’s fastball is hot, so hot that it packs heat for summers at a time. During his exposure to the bigs last season, his fastball averaged 93-94 miles per hour and got up into the high-90s on occasion. Ask an old fogey, like Sternfan, about McGee. He would probably say, “Can’t teach velocity.” There is no need to lionize McGee, but the statement reigns true. McGee being a southpaw makes his heat even more enticing.
The hardest throwing left-handed starters are a special class of pitchers. You’ve got Price (94.6 MPH), Francisco Liriano (93.7), CC Sabathia (93.5), Jon Lester (93.3), and Clayton Kershaw (92.5) as the top five. The next five are super talented too: John Danks, Gio Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Clayton Richard. Throwing hard and being left-handed are not the only requirements to successful starting pitching, but those attributes do help.
Which is why the organization appears torn over McGee’s future role. The team can send McGee to Triple-A and continue his development as a starting pitcher or they can keep him up and morph him into the soul-eating, bone-crunching, fire-spitting, out-getting, end-game reliever the big league team lacks right now. The case for McGee relieving fulfills instant gratification and absolves an even bigger logjam from occurring when the team feels Alex Torres and Alex Cobb are ready for big league action. Having too many starting pitchers is a good thing, of course, but it also allows for flexibility in how you manage the marginal arms through trades and bullpen conversions.
Why is McGee a marginal starting pitcher prospect with all the writing about power arm lefties getting it done? Because his fastball is really good and everything else seems to lack. Scouting reports grant his slider league-worthy, but he lacks a worthwhile third pitch. Further, his delivery tends to include the adjective “violent”, which is good for a one-way ticket to the Checkers Bullpen Café or the disabled list. Given how McGee’s arm has a zipper already, it’s safe to assume he is not invincible to injury. Jason Collette wrote about McGee recently and said this:
The only knock on McGee’s work is that most of it has been done with his fastball. Minor leaguers had a swinging strike rate of 23 percent against McGee last season, but our own Mike Fast says that of the 81 pitches McGee threw with the Rays last year, 73 of them were fastballs. If a closer is going to get by on just one pitch, they need to have exceptional command of that pitch. That being said, McGee had a 39 percent whiff rate on his fastball at the major league level despite the fact most batters knew a fastball was coming.
Strip the names away and play the guessing game. Quite a few folks may guess Matt Thornton. Thornton is the guy the McGee4Pen folks hope he emulates. Thornton is the closest thing to a left-handed relief demigod in the American League (with Hong-Chih Kuo taking the crown in the National League – unless Aroldis Chapman is a reliever-only). Thornton has never recorded double-digit saves in a season, yet FanGraphs’ WAR values him at roughly two-plus wins in each of the past three seasons. WPA, which is a little more kind to relievers, has him at roughly three wins over the past two seasons. Baseball Prospectus’ WXRL – an even kinder statistic to relievers – has Thornton worth more than four wins in the past two seasons. Even plain ol’ ERA suggests Thornton is dynamite.
If McGee as Relief Ace has Thornton as his upside, then he is probably worth somewhere between two-to-four wins. The question then is how many wins is McGee as Starting Pitcher worth, and which makes the Rays better in 2011 and ensuing seasons. The answer is subjective and varies based on expectations. Consider McGee as a league average starter. In the 2010 American League, such a label carries a 4.15 ERA with it, making ERA of 5.15 or higher replacement level.
If McGee threw, say, 180 innings of league average ball with a league average index leverage (about 1.00 for starters) then his leveraged runs saved can be found through this formula: (Replacement Level – Pitcher’s ERA)*(IP/9)*Leverage
McGee as League Average Starting Pitcher: 20 leveraged runs saved
McGee as Stellar Relief Ace (i.e. 2.75 ERA): 26.1 leveraged runs saved
(Please note how the replacement level threshold for relievers changes. Last season, a league average reliever in the AL had a 3.93 ERA, meaning a replacement level reliever would have a 4.93 ERA. There’s also the matter of leverage, with 1.2 being a set-up man’s leverage and 1.8 being a closer’s leverage.)
If McGee is a 3 ERA reliever, then the difference slices in half. McGee the 3.5 ERA reliever is actually less valuable than the league average starter. The difference between a half-win more valuable and less valuable is about 0.75 runs per nine innings pitched – or five runs over 60 innings – a thin border. The chances of McGee becoming an above average starter also throw a foil into the whole equation too, because a starting pitcher who tosses 200 innings with a 3.00 ERA is worth roughly the same as a 2.00 ERA reliever who tosses 81 innings with a 1.8 leverage.
Looking at McGee’s blazing fastball and his ability to retire batters of both hands makes the bullpen a tantalizing possibility. Scouts praising his bulldog demeanor and fearless attitude only add to the possibilities. Yet, the starter-or-reliever dilemma extends beyond qualitative factors and becomes far more complicated than imaginable. The Rays have a tough decision to make on McGee. He’ll probably wind up in the bullpen because he’s out of options after this season (should he be demoted), but nobody could blame the team for letting him continue his starter progress.