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September 23, 2010

A Bull In The Pen

Late-Season Call-Up Could Be Rays' Secret Weapon

by Kevin Gengler

In 2008, the Rays turned to a rookie left-hander in the postseason to help boost them to the World Series. Jake McGee isn't likely to become a future ace and Cy Young candidate like David Price, but the Rays could turn to him to provide a similar spark out of the bullpen in this year's postseason.

McGee began the year as a starter in Double-A Montgomery, and wasn't converted to relief until an early-August promotion to Triple-A Durham. His stuff, a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s, complemented by a curveball, looked like it would play up in a relief role, and the stats bear that out. In 11 appearances for the Bulls spanning 17 1/3 innings, McGee allowed a single earned run on nine hits while maintaining a 27-to-3 strikeout-to-walk rate. After two similarly dominant appearances in the International League playoffs, the Rays summoned McGee to the majors, where he made his debut two years to the day after Price's.

Thrust immediately into the spotlight, a key American League East game against the Yankees, he struggled mightily. He walked as many in that appearance as he had in his entire time with Durham. Moreover, his fastball showed none of the crispness it did in the minors. Pitchf/x data had his 15 fastballs averaging just 90.69 mph, topping out at 93.

Five days later, when manager Joe Maddon called for him to pitch in a game against the Angels, McGee seemed like a different pitcher. This time, he ran his heater up to as high at 98.5 mph, averaging 95.52. He registered two strikeouts and didn't issue a walk. In his latest outing, his fastball was closer to the 92-94 mph range, but effective nonetheless.

Of course, this is an extremely small sample size, fewer than 40 pitches thrown in the big leagues. But given his special stuff—lefties with his fastball aren't filling the streets—and minor league track record—over a strikeout per inning at nearly every stop, even with Tommy John surgery thrown in—he could be the next pitcher with an October breakout party.

Between Montgomery and Durham in 2010, lefties hit just .195 off McGee. For his minor league career, they have hit .211 (and he's no specialist: righties hit at a .239 clip in 2010 against McGee, .221 for his career). At the very least, he would give the bullpen a measure of flexibility, as Randy Choate is a true LOOGY:

 

vs. LHB

.207/.271/.276

vs. RHB:

.421/.522/.658

 

There's no guarantee McGee even makes the post-season roster, of course. He came up after the August 31 deadline, but the Rays have opened up an injury exemption spot on their roster by transferring J.P. Howell to the 60-day disabled list. Whether the Rays face the Twins or Rangers in the first round, it seems a second lefty would be a nice luxury. Here are the 2010 OPS splits for each lineup:

 

Minnesota Twins

 

  Player

vs.LHP

vs.RHP

Denard Span

.710

.680

Orlando Hudson

.719

.719

Joe Mauer

.711

.990

Jim Thome

.773

1.155

Jason Kubel

.651

.809

Michael Cuddyer

.897

.692

J.J. Hardy*

.610

.774

Delmon Young

.920

.769

Danny Valencia

1.058

.732

 

    *Hardy has reverse splits in 2010, but for his career has a much better OPS against RHP

 

 

Texas Rangers

 

Player

          vs.LHP

 vs.RHP

Elvis Andrus

.671

.644

Michael Young

.869

.747

Ian Kinsler

.966

.769

Vladimir Guerrero

.942

.815

Josh Hamilton

.789

1.175

Nelson Cruz

.982

.935

Julio Borbon

.577

.670

David Murphy

.721

.836

 

Obviously, the Rangers are built to handle left-handed pitching much better than the Twins. But given the Rays' shaky rotation as of late, it would seem like a good idea to have two lefties for the games Josh Hamilton comes up twice against the bullpen.

As for the Twins, McGee would prove to be an asset should Ron Gardenhire stagger his lineup. If Joe Mauer and Jim Thome are sandwiched around a lefty masher like Michael Cuddyer or Delmon Young, Maddon's options would be to either leave Choate in to face the masher, let McGee to face the masher, or use Choate, then a right-hander, then McGee. The latter two options would seem more palatable than being stuck with Choate facing a righty or Mauer/Thome facing a right-hander

The 2008 Rays bullpen was much less stable when Price emerged as a go-to guy. Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano have locked down the late innings this year, but it'll be hard for the Rays to turn down more help, especially help that can crank it up to 98 mph from the left side.
 

Kevin Gengler is a Baseball Prospectus intern.

Related Content:  Jake Mcgee

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