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April 4, 2013

Out of Left Field

The Way of the Gun

by Matthew Kory

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It sure is nice to have actual baseball to talk about again. Tuesday, the Rays were facing the Orioles and, up 3-2 in the top of the seventh, Joe Maddon brought Jake McGee in to relieve David Price. There are some things worth noting about Jake McGee. 

Thing One: Dude Throws Fast
With each McGee pitch, the velocity readings on SunSports’ graphic seemed to get bigger and bigger. There’s no way Jake McGee throws 97 all the time, right? I mean, Jake McGee? There must be some bias in the home broadcast network’s radar gun. That’s always something I’ve heard, that the speeds you see on television are unreliable, that television networks pump up the speeds for their own pitchers. I wondered if that was true, so I decided to do a little experiment. I watched the half inning over again on the Rays TV network (SunSports) and wrote down their posted speed for every pitch. Then I did the same thing again, but this time for the Orioles network (MASN). Then I checked the speeds against those posted on MLB GameDay and on our own Brooks Baseball.

I was hoping to find that the speeds were all different, that the Rays were adding 2 or even 3 extra miles to pump up McGee’s pitches and make him look better than he was while the Orioles were keeping the readings lower than normal because, well, I don’t know why. Maybe they’re angry, vengeful people. I was hoping to find a speed conspiracy, to uncover a PR plot of massive proportions. Instead, I found the pitch speeds are basically all the same. They all seem to use the same PITCHf/x measurements. Sadly, there wasn’t any radar gun conspiracy. Jake McGee really does throw very hard.

Unless it’s a wider conspiracy than I ever imagined…

Thing Two: That’s Weird
Of the 21 pitches McGee threw that inning, 19 of them were fastballs clocked at 95 mph or faster. “So, okay, what were the other two pitches?” you’re thinking. “Probably sliders?” Nope. The other two were fastballs also! McGee’s 16th and 21st pitches were both fastballs, but both were slower four-seam fastballs, clocked at 92.2 and 91. In fact, according to Brooks, McGee threw not two but four four-seam fastballs that inning. The speeds of the other two were 97.8, 97.5. A couple miles difference in speed between pitches of the same type is understandable but, in a 10-pitch span, McGee threw the same pitch twice and there was a 7 mph difference. So that’s weird.

I asked R.J. Anderson about this (he follows the Rays) and he speculated that McGee is trying to add a cutter to his arsenal. The last pitch, 91 mph that Chris Davis crushed over the right field wall, could have been an attempted cutter. 

Thing Three: Location Over Selection
All 21 pitches (not including four intentional balls) that McGee threw were fastballs. Pitch after pitch, fastball after fastball. You’d think he’d throw at least one different pitch, something to throw the batters’ timing off, something to put some small element of doubt about what was coming in their head, but nope. All fastballs. McGee’s player card says that last season he threw a four-seam fastball 88 percent of the time and a slider the other 12 percent. In 2011, he threw the fastball only 83 percent, the slider 10 percent, and a curveball 8 percent. In 2010 he threw just fastballs (90 percent) and the occasional curve (10 percent), though in fairness he threw just 81 pitches that season. Still, there is a progression there, minimizing and then dropping the curveball, adding a slider, all while focusing more on the fastball. And, as I discussed above, McGee can throw a fastball really fast. Last season his fastball averaged 96.45 mph. According to the PITCHf/x leaderboards here at BP, that was the 21st highest average velocity of any reliever in baseball last season.

I’ve always heard it said that pitchers need at least two pitches. Without casting some doubt into what is coming, changing speeds, changing angles, making the ball move even a little bit, getting hit around is inevitable, no matter how hard you throw. Major-league hitters are just too good otherwise. That’s what I’ve heard, but the truth is probably more complex than that. While most pitchers have multiple pitches, fastball command can be the key to successful pitching. In that sense, if a pitcher’s command is fine enough, he can get by with just a fastball.

So McGee is a fastball pitcher with a fast fastball that goes fast and last season nine out of every 10 of his pitches were fast fastballs that went fast. You might think that that would be a recipe for disaster but, well, actually for one night it was. But the disaster part wasn’t due to pitch selection. Here is the location chart from Brooks Baseball for McGee’s pitches.


Note the location of the light blue dots (they indicate hits). They’re all right over the center of the plate.

Back in 2007, David Laurila did a Question and Answer here at BP with catcher Josh Paul. In response to a question, Paul said this.

Jim Palmer said to me once--and it's not just him, it's the truth--that any pitch in a good location is a good pitch. If you watch SportsCenter, you'll see that almost all of the pitches that get hit out are in the middle of the plate. Every once in a while you'll see someone like a Vlad Guerrero hit one out of the dirt that goes four miles, but that's pretty rare. The balls that get hit hard are mistakes in location, not necessarily pitch selection. So I'm not really big on second-guessing pitch-selection, because if the ball is down, if it's where it should be, it's usually an out anyway.

Then again, as Ben Lindbergh pointed out yesterday, even if you keep the pitch down just perfectly, bad things can still happen.

McGee threw one pitch really hard on Tuesday, and that was effective more or less until he left it over the plate. That’s when this guy


did this


to it.

It doesn’t matter how hard you throw in a general sense or what the gun says. If you throw it there, that’s the ballgame. And it was.

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  Tampa Bay Rays,  Jake Mcgee

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