Today, while I was driving I-94 from the Twin Cities to Bismarck, Jon Rauch signed with the Jays as the last remaining pitcher with decent closing experience on the market meaning that whoever is going to close for the Rays in 2011 is already on the roster. There is the assumption that J.P. Howell returns no later than Memorial Day which throws another wrench into projecting saves but this is the data that presents itself to the data-driven Joe Maddon at this time.
Closing out games is a high-leverage situation and luckily, it is not hard to harvest the data for pitchers and how they perform in these types of situations. Unfortunately for the Rays, the high-leverage data for their relievers is both small in sample size and unattractive in its results. Pitchers such as McGee, Gomes, Cabral, Ramos, Russell, and Ekstrom lack sufficient data to even represent so the chart below shows what Russell, Farnsworth, and Peralta have done over the past three seasons.
Peralta’s home run rate is completely unacceptable for closing on a full-time basis and outside of his K/BB, nothing Farnsworth has done deserves any preference over Peralta or any other pitcher. That said, Farnsworth become more interesting when you dive down further into his stats. Take a look at those same metrics for Farnsworth against teams with at least a .500 record over the past three seasons (regardless of leverage):
Now we are getting somewhere! Those numbers look like a pretty decent risk for saves, outside of the home run rate. The home run rate is a bit misleading because most of that comes from his time in 2008 with the Yankees in which he gave up 11 home runs in just 44.1 innings pitched. Since leaving the Yankees, he has given up exactly eleven home runs in his last 118 innings.
Peralta has his own argument after a very strong season of middle relief for the Nationals and the oft-overlooked fact that he was the closer for the AAA team in Syracuse last season. He had 20 saves last season in just 33.1 innings giving up one home run, walking seven, and striking out 38. While those are impressive numbers, they are not terribly different from Winston Abreu who has been the closer with the Durham Bulls the past two seasons and was let go by the Rays after this season despite a terrible need for relief pitching.
Many a closer has developed in AAA only to do nothing in the major leagues with Abreu being the latest. Jonathan Albaladejo saved 43 games for the Yankees’ AAA club and yet the club went out and spent nearly $12m to acquire Soriano. Scott Mathieson saved 26 games for the Phillies’ AAA club and still has to fight for a job in the Philadelphia bullpen. Craig Kimbrel saved 23 games and struck out 83 batters in just 55 innings for the Braves but he is going to be given the opportunity to close for the Braves in 2011 and I think the Rays should do the same with Jake McGee.
The Rays had McGee in AA to start the season as a starter but moved him up to Durham late last season to both limit his workload and to prep him for a relief role in September for the Rays. McGee threw just 17.1 innings for Durham, but allowed only nine hits, one earned run, walked three, and struck out 27 batters while holding the opposition to a .148 batting average. On the season, McGee struck out 127 batters while walking just 36 in 106 innings between AA and AAA.
The starting rotation is filled with five talented arms in Price, Shields, Davis, Niemann, and Hellickson who should not be going anywhere for at least a full season. The Rays are also blessed with pitching depth at the higher levels with the recently acquired Chris Archer, Alex Torres, and Alex Cobb all close to the major league level. Given the fact the starting rotation already has a significant wait list, it makes the most sense for the Rays to use McGee in a relief role to get his talents to the major league using the path of least resistance. His fastball is back to where he was pre-surgery and it shows in his whiff rates. McGee struck out 27% of the batters he faced in AA, 41% of the batters in AAA, and 30% in the majors.
The only knack on McGee’s work is that most of it has been done with his fastball. Minor leaguers had a swinging strike rate of 23% against McGee last season but Baseball Prospectus’ Mike Fast says that of the 81 pitches McGee threw with the Rays last year, 73 of them were fastballs. If a closer is going to get by on just one pitch, they need to have exceptional command of that pitch. That said, McGee had a 39% whiff rate on his fastball at the major league level despite the fact most batters knew a fastball was coming.
Throughout his minor league career, McGee’s ability to change speeds has been the last hump he needed to become a starter as his breaking ball is considered a good pitch. Since the rotation is crowded and since his change-up is lagging behind his other offerings, McGee seems like a logical fit for the bullpen.
There is no other reliever on the open market that I would consider to be the Rays’ type of pitcher. Peralta and Farnsworth may be considered trash by some, but there are statistical reasons why both have value these days; the same cannot be said for what is left on the open market.
Farnsworth, Peralta, and McGee are the best choices for the closer role until J.P. Howell comes back who has the most proven experience of any of them. Howell has put on 25 pounds of muscle since we last saw him but nobody knows if his stuff will still be the same and it was his movement and deception that made him successful rather than his fringy velocity.
The Rays tend to do things against the grain and nothing would be more upstream than giving the closer’s role to a pitcher with just five innings of major league experience. McGee’s delivery has often been described as a set of clockhands in motion and it very well could be his time to shut games down and become the seventh different reliever in seven seasons to lead the Tampa Bay Rays in saves.