Shane McClanahan Is Changing Things Up

© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s anything as inevitable as the Tampa Bay Rays trading away a top starting pitcher, typically for salary reasons, it’s their development of the next one. Shane McClanahan looks a lot like their next one. The Baltimore native was highly effective in his rookie season, putting up a 3.34 ERA and 3.31 FIP with 10 strikeouts per nine over 25 starts in 2021. Even more impressive, he did it with minimal professional experience, with only four games in the high minors before becoming the first pitcher to make his major league debut in a playoff game.

2021 was a fine rookie season for McClanahan, but 2022 is looking like something special. In seven starts, his ERA stands at 2.52, and with a FIP of 2.67, it’s not a BABIP-fueled mirage. His strikeout percentage has jumped by about 40% year-on-year, from 27% to 38%, a notable improvement even in a very pitcher-friendly season. Batters are making both less contact than last year (dipping from 70.4% to 63.6%) and worse contact — their average exit velocity declined from 91.7 mph to 89.3, while their Statcast sweet spot percentage dipped from 36.8% to 26.5%. Among all pitchers with at least 20 innings thrown this season, only Corbin Burnes and Michael King have lower contact rates.

One of the primary differences between this season and last season for McClanahan has been the development of his changeup. Despite a fastball that can hit the high-90s with some nasty late break, McClanahan does not use his heat to finish off batters the way pitchers like Brandon Woodruff or Lance Lynn tend to. In fact, when batters get to him, it’s usually on the fastball, with a batting average well over .300 and 12 of his 19 career home runs allowed coming on the heater.

McClanahan’s success in 2021 was based on the fastball setting up his slider or curve, both of which are extremely effective whiff pitches. That hasn’t changed this year, and both pitches have seen even better results in his sophomore season. The biggest change in his profile, has been, well, the change. While he did throw his fairly hard changeup (which features with some vertical bite, to the point that at least one pitch classification algorithm thinks it’s a splitter), it was basically the after-dinner mint to his Michelin-starred breaking stuff.

This year, his usage of the changeup looks very different. Like last year, he still uses it exclusively against right-handed batters, but it’s no longer an afterthought, going from 9% of his pitches against righties to 23%. In his rookie season, he rarely went to the changeup on strike two, using it only 5% of the time, compared to using his curve 21% of the time and his slider 45% of the time. The slider utilization on these counts has disappeared in 2022, dropping from 45% to 13%, with the slack made up by his curve (45%) and changeup (21%).

McClanahan has also altered where he targets the changeup, with his average location about three inches to the outside compared to last season. Now, add in increased vertical and horizontal movement (3.1 and 1.4 inches, respectively), and it almost looks like a whole new pitch. When he was a prospect, his changeup was a 40 pitch!

However he does it, it’s fooling hitters. He already has 12 strikeouts via his changeup, all but one of which was swinging. The pitch’s whiff rate of 52.8% ranks fifth in baseball among the 160 pitchers who have faced at least 10 batters. The problems batters have don’t stop there, either; when they actually make contact, McClanahan’s xwOBA allowed has only been .115, the best in baseball. Only 11 of his 113 changeups have been successfully put into play, resulting in one fly out, one lineout, nine groundouts, and zero hits. The net result of all this is that he’s effectively neutralized right-handed hitters, allowing only a .526 OPS. He never actually struggled with a platoon disadvantage the way Shane Bieber used to before he developed his changeup, but it’s still a welcome improvement.

The ZiPS rest-of-season projection for McClanahan is “only” for a 3.73 ERA with a 3.65 FIP, but that’s using the simpler in-season model that can be run every morning. If we use full-fat ZiPS, with full knowledge of Statcast data and the overall drop-off in league offense, those numbers improve, ending up much closer to three than four. Adding in what he’s already done so far, full ZiPS projects a 2.94 final ERA for McClanahan compared to the 3.40 you’ll see on the ZiPS update page. Naturally, this improvement alters his long-term projections considerably.

ZiPS Projection – Shane McClanahan
2022 11 7 0 2.94 29 29 147.0 123 48 18 54 202 4.1
2023 11 7 0 3.37 29 29 144.0 125 54 19 52 189 3.4
2024 11 7 0 3.37 29 29 144.3 122 54 18 51 188 3.4
2025 11 6 0 3.39 27 27 138.0 117 52 18 49 178 3.2
2026 10 6 0 3.40 25 25 127.0 108 48 16 45 164 3.0
2027 10 5 0 3.35 24 24 121.0 101 45 16 42 158 2.9
2028 9 5 0 3.40 23 23 113.7 94 43 15 40 150 2.7
2029 8 5 0 3.46 21 21 106.7 89 41 14 38 142 2.4

No, those aren’t four-win projections, but that also reflects how the Rays use their starting pitchers. Year-in, year-out, the Rays rank near the bottom of the league in innings thrown by their starters, and of the few teams that finished below of them, most did so because their pitchers struggled. Cincinnati starters, for instance, haven’t thrown fewer innings (125 1/3 vs. 130) because of a desire to reduce workload — it’s because they have an ERA north of eight.

Shane McClanahan has taken that next step and I’m fairly confident that if you call him an All-Star talent, you won’t look like a liar at the end of the season. Sure, he might be in another uniform in three or four years, but the Rays Hydra will sprout another starter to take his place. Such is the circle of life in Tampa Bay.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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4 months ago

He’s a stud. I wish the Rays could keep all their guys

4 months ago
Reply to  nktokyo

The Rays have the longest tenured player in the AL East (Kiermaier debuted in 2013, tied with Bogaerts), and the longest signed player (Wander for 13 years). I wish other AL East teams showed the same loyalty to homegrown players that the Rays do.