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PLAYER BACKGROUND

Jake McGee was drafted in the fifth round in 2004 out of high school in Sparks, Nevada. As a prospect, his premium velocity from the left-hand side was his calling card. The knock on McGee as a prospect was always his control, as high walk rates accompanied high strikeout rates throughout his minor league days. McGee had Tommy John surgery in 2008, prior to his major league debut. McGee will be 29 for most of the 2016 season, turning 30 in August.

Due to his issues with control, his reliance on his fastball, and his lack of a third pitch, McGee was projected as a reliever in the big leagues by most experts despite starting every game of his minor league career until 2010, when he was on the cusp of making his major league debut. After ten appearances out of the bullpen in Triple-A Durham, McGee debuted with the Rays in September 2010, throwing five innings across six appearances, striking out six and walking three.

As a major leaguer, McGee has been one of the best relievers in baseball. Over 259 2/3 innings since 2010, he sports a career ERA of 2.77, a WHIP of 1.02, a FIP of 2.58, and a cFIP of 71. He has kept maintained the velocity and strikeout rates that got him to the major leagues and has added command and control to his profile, developing the weakest part of his profile into a strength. For the last two seasons he has been a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his four-seam fastball 93 percent of the time and his curveball seven percent of the time.

2016 will be McGee’s first professional season outside of the Tampa Bay Rays organization. He was traded along with right-hander German Marquez for outfielder Corey Dickerson and third baseman Kevin Padlo.

WHAT WENT RIGHT IN 2015?

In 2015, McGee continued doing the things that have made him so valuable over the course of his career. Here’s how he compared to league averages in some important categories:

ERA

WHIP

H/9

BB/9

K/9

Jake McGee

2.41

0.94

6.5

1.9

11.6

2015 AL Average

4.01

1.29

8.7

2.9

7.6

He struck out a lot of guys, didn’t walk many, and didn’t allow many hits. He’s awesome. He also demonstrated reverse platoon splits, which is unusual in general but consistent with his career numbers. McGee appears to be one of the few major league pitchers with an authentic reverse platoon split:

OPS vs. Right-Handed Hitters

OPS vs. Left-Handed Hitters

Jake McGee, 2015

.478

.570

Jake McGee, Career

.487

.577

The Rays understood this and didn’t use him as a lefty specialist. They mostly deployed him as a one-inning reliever and he rewarded them with some of the best rate stats of his career. He throws his fastball a lot: 93 percent of all pitches in 2015. He throws even more fastballs to righties (95 percent) than lefties (88 percent), though. Either he should throw more curveballs to righties or he has good reason to believe that righties would do more damage against his curveball than lefties do.

WHAT WENT WRONG IN 2015?

What went wrong in 2015 for Jake McGee was, in a word, health. McGee became the Rays’ closer midway through the 2014 season after Grant Balfour struggled mightily in the role. McGee performed admirably in the role, racking up 19 saves and showing no signs of losing the role any time soon.

However, McGee needed arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow during the offseason. After having is elbow cleaned out, McGee was unable to rejoin the Rays until the middle of May in 2015. By then, Brad Boxberger had laid a strong claim to the closer’s role himself, leaving no saves for McGee.

In August, McGee hit the DL again, this time for arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He was originally expected to be out for six to eight weeks, potentially ending his season. McGee was able to return from the DL ahead of schedule, five weeks after surgery, and made three appearances for the Rays before the end of the season.

McGee may have not been at full strength after his return, as his average four-seam-fastball velocity in those three appearances was nearly two miles per hour lower than it was prior to surgery on his knee according to Brooks Baseball:

May

June

July

August

September

October

95.8 MPH

95.8 MPH

95.8 MPH

95.7 MPH

93.8 MPH

92.0 MPH

Of course, those numbers for September and October came in only three appearances spanning 2.1 innings, so there’s a decent chance that they don’t mean much, if anything. More troubling is the decrease in average four-seam-fastball velocity McGee showed in 2015 compared to the previous two seasons according to Brooks Baseball:

2013

2014

2015

97.3 MPH

97.5 MPH

95.6 MPH

That’s a significant decline. It didn’t show up in his rate stats for 2015, but it’s worth noting considering the fact that he’s a Tommy John survivor and that he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his pitching elbow prior to the 2015 season.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2016

In Corey Dickerson, the Rockies gave up a lot to acquire McGee. Considering the cost and the fact that his primary competition for the closer role appear to be Jason Motte and Chad Qualls, McGee is expected to open the 2016 season as the Rockies’ closer.

While McGee’s velocity did tick down in 2015, his fantasy numbers and component statistics did not show any decline in any way. The biggest change for McGee will be the move from one of the most pitcher-friendly home ballparks, Tropicana Field in Tampa, to the most hitter-friendly home ballpark in baseball, Coors Field in Colorado. Due to the well known park effects of Coors Field, McGee will probably allow hits and home runs at a higher rate in 2016, all else being equal.

Coors Field doesn’t just boost offense by virtue of its hit-friendly dimensions or its home-run-friendly altitude, though. Coors Field also suppresses strikeout rates. In 2015, the league K/9 was 7.8 compared to 7.1 at Coors Field. This points towards a decrease in McGee’s K/9 rate in 2016 in addition to increased H/9 and HR/9 rates. However, the prevailing theory about why Coors Field suppresses strikeouts is that the breaking balls don’t break as much at high altitude due to the thinner air. If this is in fact the mechanism that is primarily responsible for lower strikeout rates at Coors Field, McGee’s strikeout rate might be less affected by a move to Coors Field than that of most pitchers since he throws his four-seam fastball 93 percent of the time. Less break on a breaking ball doesn’t matter as much to a pitcher who doesn’t throw many breaking balls in the first place. Maybe the Rockies had this in mind when they traded for McGee.

The Rockies themselves are not expected to be playoff contenders in 2016. Anything could happen once the season starts – that’s why they play the games. It matters, though, especially for fantasy purposes, because closers are often considered luxuries for non-contending teams. That makes McGee a trade risk. However, McGee seems to be less of a trade risk than most closers on non-contending teams because of the price that the Rockies just paid for him and because he is under team control through the end of the 2017 season.

If he was going to become a free agent after the 2016 season, the Rockies might be more willing to entertain offers for him. Of course, if he was going to be a free agent after the 2016 season, the Rockies probably wouldn’t have been willing to pay the price they paid for him in the first place. On the other hand, that extra year of control could mean that the Rockies could probably extract more value for McGee in trade at the 2016 deadline than they could at the 2017 deadline. Lastly, if the Rockies were going to move McGee at the 2016 trade deadline, their reasoning would likely have included a decision that closer prospect Jairo Diaz was ready to close games at the MLB level. After being diagnosed with a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament earlier this week, Diaz won’t be ready to close games for anyone until sometime in 2017 at the earliest.

If there’s anything to gain from trying to assess McGee’s trade risk, it’s this: for anyone besides players on expiring contracts on non-contending teams, assessing trade risk involves enough moving parts that a rigorous examination of all the possible scenarios doesn’t get anyone much farther than a wild guess.

THE GREAT BEYOND

As mentioned above, McGee is under team control through the 2017 season. While he spent time on the DL for two different injuries in 2015, he appears to be completely healthy heading into the 2016 season. He has little competition for the closer’s role in Colorado and should be a good bet for saves for fantasy owners. If he puts up good numbers in 2016, staying healthy and keeping the job as closer all year, he should get a sizeable raise in his last trip through the arbitration process before becoming a free agent heading into the 2018 season.

As it is with all pitchers, the primary concern going forward is health. McGee might carry slightly more injury risk than most pitchers due to the fact that he is a Tommy John survivor and the fact the puts a lot of strain on his arm pumping mid-90s heat, but he doesn’t have any specific health issues going into 2016 beyond his job description. He also carries some trade risk. In 2016, he poses less of a trade risk than most non-contending closers due to the high price the Rockies paid to acquire him and the fact that he is under team control for another full season. In 2017, with free agency looming, a non-contending Rockies team would be much more likely to trade him than they would be in 2016, especially if Jairo Diaz makes a successful return from Tommy John surgery on schedule. If traded, McGee might not be a closer on his new team. However, if traded, McGee wouldn’t call Coors Field home any more, either.

In J.P. Breen’s Fantasy Tiered Ranking for Relievers published earlier this week, McGee appears in the middle of Two Star pitchers (there are five tiers, with five star players being the best at their position) for 2016. McGee certainly isn’t Wade Davis or Kenley Jansen, but his rate stats merit more than two stars for the upcoming season. Concerns about his new home field, his diminished 2015 fastball velocity, and the fact that he only has 26 career saves kept McGee from appearing in a higher tier.

Beyond 2016, trying to place McGee in a reliever tier would be foolish. As experienced fantasy players know, speculating on relievers and whether or not they’ll be closers more than a year advance is little more than guesswork. A quarter of opening day closers lose their job by the end of the season. However, given McGee’s track record of excellent rate stats and the possibility that his numbers in Coors Field might be inflated by a smaller degree than those of most other pitchers due to his fastball-heavy pitch mix, McGee might be a better proposition for 2017 and beyond than a few of the pitchers ranked ahead of him for 2016 by my BP colleague J.P. Breen. He could just as easily lose the closer gig in April via a couple of high-altitude homers or end up on the operating table again. Fantasy relievers are fun.

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huztlers
3/10
Jake McGee was not projected as a RP by most experts - as reflected in his "starting every game of his minor league career". He would not have been a top prospect if he was a RP spec. It is really easy to look back on a guy that has really never been healthy and say that everyone saw it coming, but I don't think they did. He moved to the bullpen after injuries forced him to do so.
LeafontheWind
3/11
BP Annual comment after the 2008 season: Of the myriad high-ceiling arms in the Rays system, McGee is the rarest of prospects. It's not that hard to find a guy who can touch 98 mph, but to find one who is left-handed? That is special. In 2008 though, he suddenly didn't look so special; the fastball lost a few ticks as the season wore down, his command disappeared, and the results were fairly predictable—a popped elbow and Tommy John surgery that will cost him most of 2009. The effort in his delivery and his inconsistent secondary offerings had many projecting him as a power reliever in the end, and this outcome may have sealed the deal.
bugthecat
3/14
Commenter LeafontheWind read my mind. Every BP Annual comment for Jake McGee from 2008 through his MLB debut mentions a possible move to the bullpen for McGee due to his control issues and his inconsistent secondary pitches. You can see these comments on McGee's BP player page. He was a top prospect, making it into the top 50 prospects on BP's list in 2007 (40) and 2008 (45). He didn't appear in a BP prospect list again until 2011 when he was ranked 73rd and he had already made his MLB debut out of the bullpen and his role as a reliever had been defined. Granted, his absence from prospect rankings in 2009 was certainly due to Tommy John surgery, but in 2010, as his BP Annual player comment indicates, the odds that McGee would be a starter in MLB were a lot lower than they were when he ranked in the top 50 on prospect lists. As the years progressed and the chances that he would be a starter diminished, his prospect ranking dropped. A guy in low-A with a great fastball and no consistent secondary pitches can rank highly because that guy still has time to develop those secondary offerings. A guy in AA or higher with the same lack of secondary pitches won't rank as high because that guy is more likely to end up in the bullpen. As you know, starters are more to MLB teams than relievers because they throw a lot more innings. The Rays kept McGee as a starter until he was on the cusp of the major leagues to give him as much of a shot at developing his secondary pitches as possible to see if he could become a viable MLB starter. If he had developed a secondary pitch or two that he could throw more than 7 percent of the time, the Rays could have tried him as a starter. That development didn't happen, so the Rays made him a reliever. Teams usually won't move prospects to a lower-value role until they have to. For example, when teams have a shortstop prospect that they don't think can play shortstop at the major league level, they will often leave that prospect at shortstop as long as possible in case the prospect figures it out and becomes a decent shortstop. That player at shortstop is potentially more valuable than that same prospect at second base or third base or in the outfield. This is why lots of players end up playing farther to the left on the defensive spectrum in the majors than they did in the minors. The fact that a guy plays one position in the minors doesn't always indicate that the player in question will end up at that position in the majors. You see these types of comments all the time in prospect writeups - a shortstop prospect who is on the taller and heavier side being projected as a third baseman in the majors unless he shows some improvement in his lateral movement and quickness, or a shortstop prospect with below-average arm who projects as a second baseman in MLB due to his arm strength unless he develops a quicker release or somehow strengthens his arm. Sometimes these players manage to make it work and stay at shortstop, which is why teams keep these players at shortstop as long as they can. They might improve and become able to handle the more difficult, more valuable assignment. They often don't, but the reward of having one guy figure it out and stick at shortstop is high enough to make teams give prospects every chance to stick at the more difficult, more valuable position even if they think it's likely the prospect will have to be moved off the position. With pitchers, the same rule of thumb is often applied. The Jake McGee who started every game in the minors until he got to AAA wasn't going to be a starter in MLB unless he developed a consistent secondary pitch or two along with improved control. The Rays hoped he would develop and left him as a starter as long as they could to give him every opportunity to develop that control and those secondary offerings. The control eventually developed but the secondary pitches didn’t. Nobody was saying that Jake McGee would definitely be a reliever in the majors in 2008, they were just noting that the Jake McGee they saw with poor control and no consistent secondary offerings in the minors would likely be a reliever rather than a starter at the major league level unless he developed better control and one or two reliable secondary offerings. Those are two big uncertainties. As far as injuries go, McGee did have Tommy John surgery while he was in the minors. Aside from that, though, McGee didn't have any other injuries that landed him on the DL until the 2015 season. The Rays haven't showed a tendency to move Tommy John survivors to the bullpen, either. McGee's injury history didn't land him in the bullpen. The knocks on McGee as a prospect were his control and his inconsistent secondary offerings. He developed control, but he never developed a consistent secondary pitch or two. That was the main reason he ended up in the bullpen.
aquavator44
3/13
"On the other hand, that extra year of control could mean that the Rockies could probably extract more value for McGee in trade at the 2015 deadline than they could at the 2016 deadline. Lastly, if the Rockies were going to move McGee at the 2015 trade deadline, their reasoning would likely have included a decision that closer prospect Jairo Diaz was ready to close games at the MLB level." I would be astonished if the Rockies were able to trade him at last year's deadline. Time travel would be a significant competitive advantage, though.
bugthecat
3/13
Thanks for pointing that out. I appreciate it. The years should be fixed now.