Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)
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Want a quick way to realize that we’re still early into the season? Head on to the Fangraphs leaderboards, select relievers, then sort by ERA. Of the 208 relievers listed there, a whopping 38 still have an ERA of 0.00. Analysts aren’t just yammering about small sample sizes for no reason – with less than ten innings pitched to work with, it’s impossible to draw definitive conclusions.
Barring a historical season, every one of those 38 will regress towards an appropriate number based on the quality of his pitching. We can distinguish between those whose ERA will balloon, and those who will tack on just a couple of runs by using FIP. It isn’t a perfect stat, but it’s simple and gets the job done. It tells us that there’s a difference between Joe Kelly (0.00 ERA, 3.87 FIP) and Drew Pomeranz (0.00 ERA, 1.65 FIP). So here are some relievers who are also in control of baseball’s three true outcomes:
A negative FIP! That’s something we won’t see again for a long time, so make sure to admire it. While it’s an interesting statistical quirk, Borucki’s FIP is not what I want to discuss. All the pitchers listed here are nasty in their own right, but there’s a pitcher who stands above the rest. His name is Jake McGee. And right now, he’s a pitching anomaly.
Before diving into the McGee of today, we need to go over his past. He started his career as a relief pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, gradually becoming an essential part of their bullpen. Eventually in 2014, he was handed the closer role and lived up to expectations, accumulating a career-high 19 saves and 2.5 fWAR. An elbow surgery wiped out most of his 2015 season however, and the Rays decided to trade him to the Rockies along with German Marquez. But McGee began to unravel during his time in Colorado. His decline can be summarized by his disastrous 2019 season – 6.00 FIP, -0.3 fWAR – which prompted the Rockies to release him on July 12th, 2020.
Seeing something in the 34-year old, the Dodgers signed him to a one-year contract. That might have been unsettling for McGee, though. Because the last time he was involved in a game of Dodger baseball, this is what happened:
Yep, a 92.5 mph fastball right down the middle to an MVP candidate. Why did McGee make such a foolish decision? Well, the fastball was all he relied on for his entire career. During his spectacular 2014, McGee overpowered opposing hitters with a 96 mph fastball (sometimes categorized as a sinker), which he threw 96% of the time. You can’t really blame him for trying a strategy that worked before.
For hard-throwing relievers like McGee, velocity is crucial. Unfortunately, injuries contributed to the decline of his fastball, which lost 1.4 mph of velocity on average between 2015 and 2016. By 2019, his fastball averaged just 93.5 mph as the league-average fastball velocity increased year by year. It seemed like McGee’s stuff belonged to the past.
But welcome to 2020. So far, McGee’s fastball has jumped back up to 94.9 mph, and he’s touched 96 multiple times. Armed with a revitalized fastball, McGee went back to an old habit of his: throwing fastballs in the heart of the zone. Here’s what happened:
Wait, what? Hunter Pence completely whiffed at it? Sure, that’s a 96 mph fastball, which is by definition above average. But Pence swung like his life depended on it. Since McGee’s prime, hitters have become used to relievers who can casually dial it up to 100. They hit home runs off those things. Pence couldn’t even make contact with a lesser fastball.
But maybe that’s a one-off occasion. Either McGee doesn’t locate there often, or other hitters have had more success. This is a good time to remember that I’m talking about McGee because he has an ERA of 0.00. This is also a good time to introduce a heat map showing where his fastballs are going:
Now, McGee isn’t just pounding the Heart of the zone – you can see that he’s also nibbling its corners – but this heat map still goes against the mold. Modern-day relievers who rely on their fastballs have a tendency to throw upwards and elicit whiffs. McGee, in contrast, is directly challenging hitters and getting away with it. Of the 31 down-the-middle fastballs he’s thrown so far, the 10 whiffs they’ve elicited are tied for the second-most in baseball. On a rate basis, he’s also second with 32.3%.
Another characteristic that McGee has retained is his fondness for the fastball, which might be an understatement. Nobody’s throwing it as often as he is. In fact, nobody’s even close:
It’s as if Jake McGee is on an island of his own, a magical place where pitchers can throw one pitch 94.3% of the time – 116 of 123 total – and force hitters to barely muster a horrid .106 wOBA against them. It’s impossible, really. The most convincing reason for his success I could think of is his impeccable command over the fastball. More often than not, it hits the target established by the catcher’s glove. Look at how little Will Smith needs to move:
Here’s another example versus Christian Walker:
And just to satisfy the rule of three, a classic heater to blow away Jaylin Davis:
Another change that could be having an impact is the increased horizontal movement – what was previously a straightforward fastball has tacked on 0.9 inches of break. But is a rebound in velocity, better command, and a bit more horizontal break all that’s required for someone to become unhittable? There’s a discrepancy somewhere. Chalk it up to small sample sizes, sure, but he’s getting those called strikes and whiffs. As his stellar FIP suggests, McGee is no blind beneficiary of the Dodgers’ elite defense.
McGee’s entire existence right now is an anomaly: a pitcher who befuddles hitters with a 95 mph fastball as if they’re used to seeing 90, 91 mph, who instead of aiming for the letters prefers to challenge hitters, occasionally painting the corners too to take advantage of his improved horizontal movement. He’ll do this 9 out of 10 times. He has yet to give up a run.
Based on his turbulent past and his pitching tendencies, McGee was the least likely of the pitchers listed above to have a 0.00 ERA and a low FIP. But baseball has, and always will, have outliers throughout a given season. Some of them are corrected, others remain anomalous, and right now Jake McGee is one of them. Let’s appreciate it while it lasts.
Follow P365 MLB Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Featured image courtesy of photographer Justin Edmonds and Getty Images
All statistics from Baseball Savant and Fangraphs