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Country Hard Ball

Jake McGee re-made his career in 2020 by sticking to one pitch: the four-seam fastball. He stuck to his guns again in 2021, but how long will it last?

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants - Game Two Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

2021 stats: 62 games, 59.2 innings pitched, 2.72 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 31 saves

Jake McGee throws one pitch. It’s a fastball. A four-seamer. The fastballiest of all the fastballs because there is minimal lateral movement, no wrinkle. It’s just straight and, you know, fast.

McGee threw his four-seamer 791 times in 2021. 90.1% of his pitches. Other than Matt Wisler of the Tampa Bay Rays, no other professional pitcher in the Majors last season relied more on a single pitch.

So much of hitting is timing and–if I may–the basis of pitching is to disrupt this timing. Fastballs often work because of their off-speed and breaking counterparts. It’s a lot harder to catch up to a 95 MPH fastball when a hitter has to protect against an 82 MPH slider.

Jake McGee’s average four-seamer clocked in at a hair under 95 MPH. That’s above league mean speed, in the 76th percentile in fact, but I’d argue it’s a less compelling 95 without the complement of a slower breaking pitch. Nor is 95 MPH heat the silver bullet it once was. We are living in an age when everyone and their grandmother can roll out of bed and torch mid-90s. It doesn’t turn heads or silence dugouts or rile up the bleachers anymore–we’ve been desensitized to it.

Obviously, it’s still hard to hit a 95 or 96 or 97 MPH fastball, but it makes it a lot easier when you know it’s coming. And when Jake McGee toes the rubber, you know it’s coming.

So what made McGee effective on the mound in 2021?

In his first season for the San Francisco Giants, the left-handed reliever converted 31 saves out of 36 opportunities. He authored a 2.72 ERA over 59.2 innings pitched. Opponents batting averages, both left-handed and right, were sub .200. His WHIP was sub 1.00. These are all things you want in a reliever: a person who will attack the strike zone in close, late-game situations. McGee did just that.

Digging around in Baseball Savant leader boards and its world of Statcast pie charts and zig-zag graphs, I was able to get a better sense of what made McGee tick.

Mainly, it was his control. He threw first pitch strikes 67 percent of the time and threw 60 percent of his pitches in the zone, forcing batters to more often than not hit behind in the count. He was elite in not walking batters. He was able to locate his pitches up, which is important with a four-seamer and it’s hallucinatory “rise”.

This might just be me, but I think another element to McGee’s success is his “strangeness.” We all love a quirky relief pitcher, and McGee is quirky, ironically, because of how plain he is: A clean-shaven, straight shooter throwing the ol’ “country hardball” as Mike Krukow says. He’s a different look for an opposing hitter, an increasingly valued characteristic when front offices are assembling their bullpens and starting rotations. Imagine going from Tyler Rogers submarine-frisbee-toss-thing to Jake McGee…it’s discombobulating!

McGee’s resurgence occurred last year after he left Colorado and became a Dodger (very annoying how that’s been happening more and more lately). It was then he turned himself into a one-trick pony. In 2020, he threw his four-seamer 96 % (!) of the time and his season totals were dominant. It’s a smaller sample size for sure and the Los Angeles Dodgers had the depth and flexibility to use him mainly against right-handed batters–but this year he regressed in a considerable amount of categories. Most notably his strikeout rate dropped from 41.8% in 2020 to 24.3% in 2021. His Whiff percentage fell off a cliff as well, from 34 % to 20%.

Again it’s hard to compare 2020 stats to other seasons, but a sharp decline in these categories might be red flags, warranting close observation by Giants coaches at the start of 2022.

Another reminder of our mortality: McGee will also be turning 36, and fastballs do not particularly age well. He

He was able to maintain his average velocity (94.9 MPH) from ‘20 to ‘21, but I’m skeptical if that number will stay there for much longer. Maybe we’ll see his slider usage tick up? Go from 9.9% to something like 11% or 12%—I can’t see him straying much more from what has worked so well for him these past two seasons.

Jake McGee was the anticipated closer when he was signed last February, but I think its clear that Gabe Kapler is going to expect his bullpen arms to be flexible and ready to take the mound in any situation. We’ll see McGee in the 9th. We’ll see him the 8th, setting up Tyler Rogers or Camilo Doval. We might see him coming in for a big out to shut down the 7th...

All I know for sure is Jake McGee is going to throw a lot of fastballs next year.