Jake McGee pitched with a platoon advantage 52 percent of the time in 2011. Based on the results against righties (.392/.483/.660), you could not have blamed Joe Maddon if he upped that rate. But, rather than branding his young pitcher a LOOGY, Maddon has used McGee against a higher percentage of right-handers in 2012.
So far, the results are surprising, and not just because of McGee’s 2011. McGee is holding right-handed hitters to a line of .119/.177/.138, while lefties are hitting .245/.302/.388. In essence, McGee’s numbers suggest that the platoon advantage is a bad thing. There is no reason to put McGee in the John Danks Club just yet. However, there is evidence that McGee may have improved his mechanical and philosophical approach against right-handers.
Visuals time. First, a look at McGee’s stance, leg-lift, and release point from Opening Day 2011:
And now from 2012:
In light of other recent mechanical and performance changes in the Rays bullpen, my eyes first went to McGee’s placement on the rubber. Admittedly the framing and dirt on the mound make it difficult to precisely figure his placement, but any possible change seems to be minimal.
There are a few differences in the middle frames. In 2011, McGee’s front foot is askew; in 2012, the toes are pointing almost directly toward first base. McGee’s plant leg appears closer to his body this season, with the knee arc seemingly narrower. There is a slight visual first base lean to his body in 2011; in 2012, he appears more upright and balanced. In the last frames, McGee’s entire body seems lower to the ground in 2012—leading to a lower release point, as supported by PITCHf/x data.
A tighter, more balanced delivery should mean better command. There is indeed evidence of that being the case against righties:
McGee seemingly targeted the up and away portion of the strike zone last season, but this season he’s actually hitting the spot, along with the rest of the outer half. It seems like a high-probability spot to place a fastball. Even if a hitter can catch up, he’s unlikely to do anything damaging with it. The improved location is forcing batters to think about protecting the outside-edge, rather than selling out for an inside pitch. Unsurprisingly, McGee is seeing more whiffs on his fastballs versus righties, too (14 percent, up from nine percent).
McGee is still very much a fastball pitcher (only eight relievers have thrown a higher percentage of fastballs), his slider is making more than the occasional cameo. Last year R.J. theorized that McGee’s then-newfound curveball was a stopgap until he could control his slider well enough to use it versus righties. It seems that the time has come. McGee threw his breaking pitches an almost equal amount last season, per Brooks Baseball. No longer is that the case: McGee’s curveball has almost disappeared in favor of the slider. He’s even showing enough confidence in the pitch to use it in crucial deep counts:
McGee’s Slider Usage by Strike Count Versus Righties, 2011-12
Along with the increased usage, McGee is seeing improved results. Right-handed batters are swinging more often, and whiffing more at the slider. When they do make contact with the slider, the ball tends to stay in the infield—via either groundball or pop-up. The key is, again, improved location. Last season, McGee’s slider usage versus righties seemed scattershot. This year, he seems more proficient at throwing the slider at the batter’s back foot.
So long as McGee continues to command his pitches against right-handed batters, Maddon should feel comfortable and confident in unleashing his young southpaw in the late innings.