With the help of 45 added pounds, an good curveball, and a changeup that’s inching closer toward become an average big-league pitch, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder has emerged as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball – and don’t forget that his mid-90s fastball is already among the best in the minors. We had him as the No. 9 overall prospect in the minors – just behind Dodgers’ lefty Clayton Kershaw – last October. And McGee could easily go on to claim a Top 3 spot on our list if he continues to progress in the upper minors.
We touched base with the potential big-league ace this offseason to go over what caused his elevated walk rate in Double-A, the evolution of his arsenal, and the specifics of how he’s improving his changeup.
Adam Foster: It’s often said that lefthanders with powerful fastballs that they can locate tend to breeze through the lower minors. Then, they have a lot more challenges once they’re facing advanced hitters. Do you agree?
Jake McGee: Actually, I felt it was easier for me when I faced better hitters. I got more adrenaline from it. I’d think, “If I make a mistake, he’s probably gonna hit it hard.” So I had to be a little more selective with my pitches and locate better.
Foster: Were there any hitters in particular who really got your adrenaline going?
JM: Jay Bruce...I always try to step it up but he always hits me. I faced a lot of lineups that were full of really good hitters, especially when I faced Jacksonville in my second start. I knew their team was in first place and we had to win that game. I had a lot more adrenaline then (McGee’s line from that game: 6.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 7 K, 22 TBF).
AF: You haven’t pitched more than 140.0 innings in a single season yet in your pro career. Did the Rays try to limit you to 140.0 this season?
JM: Not really. I think I had 150-something this year including the playoffs. But they haven’t really limited me. It’s just been limited pitch counts. Sometimes I throw a lot more pitches because I get a lot of swing and misses.
AF: What have your pitch counts been?
JM: They’ve been around 90-100 – 105 max.
AF: Do you expect that to be the same next season?
JM: I think it’s going to go up a little more next year...might go on a two-game plan where can you throw 200 or so pitches – so like 120 one game then 95 the next.
AF: What do you do to try to get batters out?
JM: I just stick with my strengths. And then if I know they have weaknesses, I just pound their weaknesses. And if they’re on my fastball then I’ll throw them a changeup.
AF: What do you consider your biggest strength?
JM: My fastball definitely.
AF: Your strikeout rate has been extremely consistent since your full-season debut but your walk rate has had some fluctuations – especially from High-A to Double-A – how do you explain that? (McGee walked 8.3% of the 470 batters he faced in High-A and 13.1% of the 99 he faced in Double-A.)
JM: My first game in Double-A I just got nervous and I walked a lot of guys (six if you’re scoring at home). After that, my walks went down...my last four starts or six (including playoffs). It was just kind of nerves a little bit. Once I got settled in, I was doing a lot better.
AF: If you threw 100 pitches how often would you throw each pitch in your arsenal?
JM: I’m trying to get away from throwing a lot of fastballs. I’d likely throw around 70-80 fastballs...maybe even a little lower, maybe around 60. Then split up the rest with offspeed. Ideally, what I want to get to eventually is like 60 fastballs then 20 of each offspeed pitch...around there give or take some.
AF: And how would that differ from what you threw your first full season in pro ball?
JM: It helped a lot when I got my changeup developed more. So if they’re on a certain pitch, I just throw my changeup and they’ll be in front of it. Sometimes I throw more curveballs and sometimes more changeups just because I’ve gotten more control over the last year or so.
AF: What have you done to gain that control with your changeup?
JM: I just threw it a lot more and I believed in it a lot more – got more confidence with it. This year, after my first start in Double-A, I moved over towards the third-base side of the rubber and that changed a lot with everything. I started throwing a lot more strikes.
AF: When I talked to you last year, you said you had two breaking balls that you threw: one that was kind of a first-pitch strike curveball – a loopy one – and the other was a hard one that you’d throw to try to get strikeouts. Do you still do that?
JM: Yeah, I still do it but I’m making both of them harder. And the other one’s more of a slider now, especially when I face lefties. I don’t want to face a lefty and throw him a loopy curveball because he has more time to see it.
AF: Would you describe yourself as a power/strikeout pitcher?
JM: Yeah, I’m a power/strikeout pitcher.
AF: What have you been taught about the significance of the ground ball and how important do you believe ground balls are for a pitcher?
JM: I’ve been taught quite a bit about pitching to contact and trying to stay in the lower part of the zone...just to get ground balls instead of fly balls ‘cause if you leave a pitch up, it can get hit pretty hard.
AF: The Rays have become equipped with a wealth of talented arms. How does that pitching depth affect your mentality as you try to prove that you have what it takes to pitch in the big leagues?
JM: It doesn’t change that much. Ever since I signed, I’ve always of been under the radar and had to work up to everything and prove that I should be there with everyone else. So it doesn’t bother me that much. I go out and work hard still...it just pushes me even more.
AF: And yeah, you said you felt like you were still a bit under the radar when we spoke last year – a fifth rounder. Do you feel like now, having had some success in Double-A, you’re no longer under the radar? Or do you still feel like a bit of an underdog?
JM: I don’t feel like I’m under the radar as much at all – especially because I moved up to Double-A and I have pretty good numbers in Double-A.
AF: It must have been pretty exhilarating to get that midseason promotion to Double-A.
JM: Yeah was really exciting actually because I got moved up on my 21st birthday.
AF: Have you felt that the organization has given you more attention each offseason as you’ve proven yourself?
JM: Yeah, definitely. I think every year they’ve shown more.
Adam Foster can be reached at email@example.com.