Thoughts on Jake McGee’s Mentality | The Process Report

Thoughts on Jake McGee’s Mentality

I have never bought into the closer mentality. Having a streak of competitiveness, aggression, and resiliency are nice ingredients for any pitcher’s attitude, but for those to be so crucial that it determines whether a pitcher should throw in the eighth or the ninth seems outlandish and the sort of tommyrot told to impress naïve onlookers by veteran closers—or their agents, more likely. After all, if everyone believes it takes a special kind of pitcher to close, then those with the proven genes will become increasingly desirable and compensated.

A year or two ago, I ran across an article about Arthur Rhodes and the Orioles. I am not entirely sure how I found the article, but this Baseball Musings post confirms that the piece exists. Within, Mike Flanagan—who later became the Orioles general manager—talks about how Rhodes’ psychological tests suggested he should not be a closer. Sure enough, Rhodes spent nine seasons with the Orioles (from 1991-to-1999) and never saw a double-digit save season.

Not only did Rhodes not close for the Orioles, but the Athletics appear to be the lone team to give him a crack at the ninth inning—and he posted an ERA over 5.00 that season. Throughout the rest of his career, Rhodes has flourished in a setup or middle relief role. Of course, Baseball-Reference tells us that Rhodes’ career ERA in non-save situations is preferable to his save situations ERA, but only slightly (3.35 versus 3.43).

There are a few ways to go with this story, but skepticism is king. If the Orioles had the magic potion for what makes a pitcher cower in big situations, then why have they struggled to build bullpens and rotations over most of the last decade? Perhaps Rhodes wasn’t mentally fit to close, but what if the Orioles already had these feelings—possibly based on other factors—and simply touted the psychological test results that confirmed their pre-existing bias while ignoring the signs elsewhere.

Whatever the reasoning with Rhodes, he is but one data point. It doesn’t take much wherewithal to realize where I’m going with this, but Jake McGee has 19 big league appearances under his belt and already there is talk about whether he can handle closing. I would say the solution to this problem is just to go without a closer then and let McGee roam in a J.P. Howell manner, but I suppose being snarky will have to fall in line behind being pragmatic.

The evidence against McGee comes in various forms, a good chunk being anecdotal. McGee’s first appearance came in the top of the fifth inning against the Yankees. McGee walked Colin Curtis on four pitches to load the bases, then walked Francisco Cervelli on five pitches to walk in a run. He did strike out Derek Jeter on four pitches, but walking various forms of lineup dreck is a good way to infuriate the fan base and manager alike. Joe Maddon allowed McGee to face one more batter, Curtis Granderson, and McGee walked him too.

Then a funny thing happened. McGee faced 16 more batters over the remainder of the season, including five Yankees, and he walked none of them. Not a one. He struck out five, allowed two hits, and completed 4 2/3 innings, but zero walks—69 percent of his pitches earned strike classification. The average leverage index of those appearances was .34, whereas the debut game held a leverage index of .67.

The person who believes McGee isn’t cut out for high-stress innings will use that as proof, but in reality, neither of those leverage indexes are very high—1.0 is about the average starting pitcher’s leverage index, 1.5 or so for a setup man, and 1.8-to-2.0 for a closer. Move ahead to this season and McGee had three situations with a leverage index above 1. The first came during the second game of the season—he would get one out and allow a three-run homer–, the second against the White Sox—he got one out, allowed a hit, and walked two—, and the most recent came against the Twins—he faced one and got the out.

As you may have noticed, the trend continued. With those pieces of anecdotal evidence, you would expect to head to McGee’s splits pages and witness a massacre in high and medium leverage situations, but you won’t. Oh sure, McGee has allowed a 4000 OPS in high leverage spots, but in three plate appearances. Conversely, his 143 OPS in medium leverage spots comes in seven plate appearances. And, in 44 low leverage plate appearances, he has a 657 OPS against.

Those are all small sample sizes, but I doubt there is anything in McGee’s profile that indicate he shouldn’t be a high leverage reliever, otherwise would the Rays put him in those spots knowing that he has the tendency to welter? Maddon using McGee in early high leverage spots is implicitly stating they trust him there. Now, that trust may have disappeared with McGee’s inability to locate the plate or keep the ball in the playing field, but he was going to see limited high leverage reps in recent weeks with the rotation’s excellence as of late.

The Rays haven’t had many young relievers under Maddon’s watch, but it makes sense for him to back off the gas if he feels McGee isn’t pitching well when he has other options available. Say what you want to about Cesar Ramos, but his long-term wellbeing just isn’t that important relative to McGee. Besides, there is reason to believe McGee thinks of his high leverage struggles as nothing (if he knows anything of them).

One of the unintentionally funny moments from the Rays broadcast came during the losing early season losing streak, I believe. Somehow, McGee’s name came up, maybe because he was pitching, maybe not. Anyhow, Brian Anderson—who, by the way, has impressed me with his prep work—mentioned that McGee wanted to become the closer. Anderson stressed McGee’s eagerness to take the ball in the ninth as a good development.

Now, far be it for me to shoot down the enthusiasm or label it as a bad thing—it’s not—but relievers like McGee are only going to make money if they close, and at last check, McGee wants to make money during his career. When I was researching a piece earlier this season about relievers and arbitration earnings, saves came up as the statistic that gets a reliever paid. Just check Mike Adams’ career stats and earnings to those of Leo Nunez—if money is the object of desire, then as a reliever you want to position yourself for a closing or starting spot, not the sixth or seventh inning roles.

Those dueling anecdotes may feel like they tell us a lot, but they don’t. It’s like a Rorschach test. You might see a cow, I might see a platypus, but as long as the image the Rays see when they look at McGee isn’t the same the Orioles saw with Rhodes, then it doesn’t really matter. And heck, even if they see the same image as Rhodes, that’s not a bad development for either side.



2 Comments

  1. kgengler wrote:

    Agreed on mentality. I think it’s more physical in that he needs more relief experience (in AAA) to get better at warming up quickly and coming out firing 95.

  2. raysprof wrote:

    In short, humans are terrible at identifying patterns. They either see a pattern that does not exist or miss patterns that can be described using simple mathematical relationships. The reason we acquire data from many samples for long periods of time is to reduce the probability that what ever pattern seen is not a product of random events.

    So Mr. McGee might not have the “mental makeup”, but using a handful of antidotes don’t justify the claim. Especially from a data driven organization.

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