Jake McGee Interview

January 10, 2008
It didn’t take long for Jake McGee to prove to the world that he’s an elite prospect. A skinny, 6-foot-3, 190-pounder who was far from polished in high school, McGee lasted into the 5th round of the 2004 draft. But more people in the industry could have seen that the big-shouldered lefty had the bone structure to add the kind of mass needed to become a serious threat on the mound.

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 adamf@projectprospect.com.