SF Giants reliever Jake McGee has solidified himself as the closer for Gabe Kapler’s squad after rejuvenating his career last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the nine wins that the Giants have this season so far, McGee closed out six of them. Even after recording his first blown save of the year on Saturday against the Miami Marlins, he still is tied for the league-lead in saves and has a strong 2.16 ERA (2.20 FIP).
The lefty was famous for throwing his fastballs 97% of the time last year with the Dodgers and recording an incredible 44.1% swing-and-miss rate on pitches thrown in the middle of the strike zone. How has McGee found so much success relying on just one pitch? To help answer the question, I turned to Baseball Savant’s Statcast data and came away with three reasons.
Understanding SF Giants closer Jake McGee: Release consistency
At 5’8″ from the ground, McGee’s release point is just an inch higher than fellow 6’4″ lefty Madison Bumgarner. That height helps both the current and former Giants lefty to have a flatter approach angle at the top of the zone. However, what differentiates McGee from Bumgarner and most pitchers is the consistency of his release point.
While Bumgarner tends to have a bigger area of release point like an ellipse, McGee’s area is particularly compressed. A consistent release point may seem to work in a hitter’s favor, since it’s easier to know where they’ll have to pick up the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. However, variations in release point are often tied to location and pitch type. By managing to replicate his release point while working all across the zone, even the most perceptive hitters cannot use the release point to help them predict where the pitch is going. This is one area where McGee’s uncommon reliance on a single pitch could help him replicate his mechanics more consistently than most, aiding his effectiveness.
Understanding SF Giants closer Jake McGee: Edge of the zone
Since McGee has thrown his fastball more than 95% of the time in 2020 and 2021, it’s safe to assume he consistently throws strikes. Indeed he does. McGee has thrown 59% of his pitches in the strike zone in 2021 (MLB average is 48.4%). Most importantly, he has consistently hit the edge of the strike zone at above-average rates over the past two seasons. In fact, this season, McGee has thrown a higher proportion of pitches at the edge of the strike zone (48.5%) than the average pitcher throws in the strike zone at all.
I would love to see McGee throw his fastball up in the zone more to take advantage of some improved vertical movement this year. Still, the Giants are taking advantage of his consistent release point by throwing east and west to limit opposing contact as best as possible.
Understanding SF Giants closer Jake McGee: “Invisi-ball”
This is now beyond Statcast and more of an eye test observation. McGee should not have the kind of success he does exclusively throwing fastballs without elite velocity consistently into the strike zone. There is something beyond the statistics that makes McGee really tough to score runs against.
It boils down to McGee’s mechanics. He seems to throw an invisiball. As former Giants catcher Andrew Susac said asked about Yusmeiro Petit’s invisiball, the former second-round pick said, “(Petit) leads with his elbow and leaves his wrist back until the last moment.” This clip from McGee’s time with the Rockies shows a similar trend in his mechanics. He leads with his elbow and leaves his wrist back until the last moment.
It helps explain why his fastball plays so well beyond its velocity. These mechanics hide the ball from the hitter until pitch is released, helping the ball “jump” on a hitter. Whenever you’re watching a broadcast with McGee on the mound and the camera cuts behind the plate, it becomes easy to see why it’s so difficult for offenses to score runs against him.
To have a long big league career as a pitcher, you need to combine unique tools. Flat approach angle, movement, deception, and command paired with solid velocity have McGee one of the most unique relievers in MLB. The SF Giants hope he can continue replicating that success in the back of their bullpen for years to come.