Against the Grain, with Jake McGee

We don’t know each other, but we’re part of the same circle, in that we spend a lot of our time thinking about baseball analysis. And because we’re in the same circle, we share a bunch of inside jokes. They might not feel like inside jokes, but that’s precisely what they are. Jokes about Jose Molina framing pitches. Jokes about Yuniesky Betancourt playing defense. Jokes about Delmon Young playing defense. Jokes about Delmon Young playing offense. Jokes about Delmon Young acquisitions. We’ve all been programmed to make fun of Delmon Young, and so we’re also programmed to make fun of the teams that like to use him. At least, this was the case, and then Young wound up back on the Rays.

We’re all biased. When Young went to the Phillies, people ripped them to bits, even though Young technically wasn’t even guaranteed a job at first. When Young eventually wound up with the Rays, though, we all paused. We wanted to make fun, but because it was the Rays, we also wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. That’s something the Rays have earned, and now we figure when they do something weird, they must be up to something. Our assumption is generally that the Rays are right, even when we don’t know why, and the Rays made a particularly curious move on Wednesday against the Indians. It wasn’t the in-game equivalent of signing Delmon Young — who, incidentally, homered, off Danny Salazar — but there was something very much anti-traditional.

And it came in the bottom of the eighth, with the score 3-0. Joel Peralta was on the mound, and he sandwiched a single between a pop out and a fly out. Up came Ryan Raburn, and out came Joe Maddon, to replace Peralta with Jake McGee. Raburn is right-handed. Peralta is right-handed, and had thrown 16 pitches. McGee is left-handed. Against a guy known for hitting southpaws, and with a righty on the mound and righties in the bullpen, Maddon deliberately gave up the platoon advantage to go with a guy with basically one pitch. Had the same move been made by another manager, it would’ve been bewildering. Because it was Maddon and the Rays, it demands further investigation. What was it that Maddon saw?

Raburn, it should be noted, didn’t hit this season like the Ryan Raburn with whom you might’ve been familiar before. He torched lefties to the tune of a .617 slugging percentage. David Wright came in at .605. Yasiel Puig at .583. Giancarlo Stanton at .593. Raburn didn’t represent the tying run, but he represented an important run, and an opportunity for the Indians to get back in the game. Nevertheless, McGee. Figuratively and literally, I’ll never be able to get inside Maddon’s head, but following, a few things. Some or all of the below might have been Joe Maddon’s reasoning.

Jake McGee’s really good, by the way. He throws one pitch almost all of the time, but it’s a really good pitch, and unlike most relievers, McGee doesn’t have a big platoon split, if he has a split at all. Excluding Alex Cobb, the Rays had eight pitchers on their wild-card roster. Among them, this year, Jake McGee had the highest strikeout rate against righties, at 30%. Among them, over the last two years, the same holds true, with McGee edging Fernando Rodney. Peralta’s been good, and Rodney’s been good, but McGee’s been good, too, and so his handedness was less of a factor than handedness tends to be. Raburn didn’t slug .617 against pitchers like McGee.

McGee’s average fastball is about 97 miles per hour. In other words, he’s a flame-thrower, and it’s worth considering how Raburn has done against elite-level heat. Where do you really start thinking of a fastball as fast? For me, I draw the arbitrary line at 95, so let’s go with 95. This season, Raburn saw 100 fastballs clocking in at at least 95. More than a third of them were balls. Another 21 were called strikes, leaving 43 swings. Of those, 20 whiffed, and 14 hit the ball foul. Raburn put nine in play, and one for a hit, which, granted, was a homer. But it was a homer to the opposite field that barely got out of the ballpark in Kansas City, so it’s not like Raburn destroyed it. And most important, 20 whiffs out of 43 swings. There’s evidence right there that Raburn has trouble with gas, no matter the hand, and that’s McGee’s one thing. Platoon advantages don’t have to represent the only strategies.

As for facing lefties, the fastest pitch Raburn hit out left the hand at 92.6 miles per hour. He saw just ten pitches at 95 or above, swinging at four and swinging through two. The fastest pitch he saw from a lefty was 97.6. Here’s McGee vs. Raburn:

  • 97.5
  • 96.8
  • 97.9
  • 98.6
  • 98.9

McGee throws quite a bit harder than Joel Peralta. Rodney, like McGee, possesses a blazing fastball, but then Rodney also likes to lean on his changeup, and that could be more Raburn’s speed. McGee wasn’t going to throw something slower. For him, it was going to be pure heat until somebody won.

At the end of the day, isn’t it still Ryan Raburn? By wRC+, Raburn was baseball’s eighth-best hitter against lefties this year. But seventh was Jeff Baker, and ninth was Danny Valencia. Raburn’s career wRC+ against lefties is 121, and his career wRC+ overall is 103. Last year he was a catastrophe, and though Raburn is a fine batter, he’s not a terror, he’s not someone you fear and pitch around. He hit 16 homers, but they averaged 371 feet. Coco Crisp’s averaged 369. Look at these average distances and scroll down. How much do Raburn’s numbers really reflect his true ability? Maybe Maddon didn’t want to go to Rodney with men on base, an inning before normal. Though McGee meant he was yielding the platoon advantage, he was yielding it to Ryan Raburn, and McGee is tremendous.

This is how the at-bat played out:






That last pitch was on the border, and Raburn might well have gotten Molina’d. It was also the pitch McGee wanted to throw, and Raburn couldn’t pull the trigger. I wouldn’t say he looked real comfortable. This is in part results-based analysis, and there’s no getting away from that, but Maddon’s unusual maneuver did pay off, and there were good reasons to believe ahead of time it would do just that.

The point isn’t that Jake McGee was the right call. Staying with Peralta probably would’ve been fine, and it also would’ve been fine, if not arguably better, to go with Rodney. But McGee wasn’t the wrong call, because he’s dominated righties, and because he throws the kind of pitch that seems to give Raburn some fits. Could be a bat-speed thing, or a swing-path thing, but Raburn hasn’t liked big heat, and that’s what McGee comes with. That’s what he came with in the bottom of the eighth. Maybe there was some element of contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism. Maybe Maddon liked the idea of just throwing people for a loop. But he also made a perfectly fine call, even if it was a call few other managers probably would’ve made.

This at-bat didn’t decide the game. In a way, Delmon Young decided the game. But, you might’ve heard the Rays operate differently. This is but one of the most recent examples, and with Maddon, you always know nothing happens that isn’t considered thoughtfully. It’s absolutely incredible that we’ve gotten to the point at which we take the Rays for granted.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

I knew this post was coming.