Dominant fastball has been key for McGee all along
Left-handed reliever is 3-0 with a 1.36 ERA and 38 strikeouts for the Rays
ST. PETERSBURG -- To the fence posts, it was a death sentence, meted out by a high school lefty with coat-hanger shoulders.
Sitting in the family's house in Reno, Nev., Jake McGee's father, Mark, would hear the dull thuds. Outside, Jake's fastball -- a decade away from becoming the weapon it is today, the money pitch of a lockdown Major League reliever -- would batter the wooden fence around his yard, tennis balls shattering the planks.
In 2014, that fastball has made McGee one of baseball's top bullpen arms. He is 3-0 with a 1.36 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 33 innings for the Rays -- and he throws his fastball 94 percent of the time.
"When I get my sign, I look at the ground first and think what I want to do, what pitch I want to throw -- so pretty much, where I want to throw my fastball," McGee joked.
That fastball is 10 mph faster than the one that used to break his family's fence posts, a fastball Mark McGee would catch sitting on a bucket on Jake's high school's basketball courts. Mark refused to catch Jake's curveballs after Jake uncorked one that drilled him in the chest. McGee's fastball averages more than 96 mph today, one of the highest marks in the Majors and often hits 98-100 mph.
On June 6, the dominance of McGee's fastball led Rays manager Joe Maddon to say of McGee, who had just gone all of May without allowing a run, "He is our one true All-Star." With a few weeks left before the announcement of the 2014 All-Star rosters -- even though McGee's chances take a hit because he is not a closer -- not much has changed. After all, 33 of McGee's 36 appearances have been scoreless.
"I think Jake totally would be our number one prospect to be an All-Star," Maddon said.
Not without his old pitching coach, he wouldn't be.
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To Dennis Banks, it was terrifying.
Banks, who tutored McGee and several other drafted Nevada prepsters, would also catch his players on the bucket. That included current Angels reliever Kevin Jepsen, who threw 96-98 mph in high school.
Banks would sit there with his lefty catcher's mitt on, and as Jepsen hummed in fastballs in the upper 90s, Banks would do business on his phone -- rolling the balls back with his glove-hand while he made calls with his left. But when the McGee fastballs started firing, even though they were slower, business took a backseat.
"It was as scary as anything you've ever done in your life," Banks said. "His command wasn't like what it is now. When you were sitting on the bucket with your glove there, the only thing you knew was that the odds were that wasn't where it was going.
"Now, you could sit there and have a little two-foot square you know the ball's gonna be in. He's very dialed in. It's a beautiful thing to watch."
When McGee first came to Banks, though, he was just a high school sophomore with a sore shoulder and mechanics problems, who needed a plan to get drafted.
The first step, Banks told McGee and his father at their first meeting, would be to start an icing program that corrected the bad high school habits. It involved throwing more and icing less. Ten days later, Mark and Jake were back in his office.
"This is the first time in two years that Jake's arm hasn't hurt," Mark told Banks. He and Jake were so excited. It's Banks' fondest memory of McGee.
After the shoulder, Banks had to fix everything else. For example, Banks had McGee throw pitches at the plate. The method changed McGee's release point so he could keep the ball down.
"He helped me through a lot of stuff," McGee said.
Banks remembers when the dividends materialized early in McGee's senior year. That's when the calls from scouts started pouring in.
Fred Repke was the Rays' Nevada area scout at the time. On one 35-degree Reno day, Repke, and now-Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison, went to watch McGee play. They took shelter behind a building, squeaking out between pitches. McGee, in the freezing cold, was throwing 88-91 mph.
"'You know what?'" Repke thought, "'If that kid can pitch in this kind of weather, he's gonna be pretty good.'"
A few months later -- four years after signing James Shields, and two years before signing Evan Longoria -- Repke signed Jake McGee, a fifth-round pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft.
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To veteran Rays catcher Jose Molina, it's easy. Years after Banks last caught a McGee fastball, the scariness is gone.
"It's kind of simple," Molina laughed. "He's just gonna throw 99, and let it go."
But it's been a slow development. McGee was a top Rays prospect, behind only the likes of Longoria and pitcher David Price, until he had Tommy John surgery in 2008. He reached the Majors in 2010 and had a stellar 2012 season posting a sub-2.00 ERA, but regressed last year to an ERA over 4.00.
Then McGee put it all back together. He is closer material, and his manager knows it. Even though the Rays currently have no "official" closer, just a committee of possibilities, McGee has gotten the highest-leverage spots.
"Absolutely, he can be a closer," Maddon said. "There's no question. No question."
Not just because of his velocity, either. It's McGee's command, too, which has improved dramatically over his career. Now, he locates triple-digit heat right onto the corners, like when he blew away Houston's Jon Singleton on June 15, for his first save of 2014. But he also remembers his first 100-mph pitch, in Double-A. It makes him laugh.
"Um, I think it was really high," McGee said. "I didn't have as good control back then, as I do now."
It's also the unpredictability. McGee's fastball moves so much that 42 percent of the time, it shows up as a two-seamer on his PITCHf/x. That makes him laugh, too.
"It runs a lot, so PITCHf/x picks up a two-seam," McGee said. "But I just throw a four-seam, same grip every time."
And, of course, it's McGee's demeanor -- never-changing, unshakably laid back. His Draft day is a perfect example.
McGee was stressing out on June 7, 2004. He'd told people he would only sign if he was a top-five-round pick, and he was still on the board when the Draft reached the fifth. Finally, the Rays called -- they'd be drafting McGee with the fourth pick of the round. The weight lifted off his coat-hanger shoulders, McGee answered.
"I was just like, 'All right, yeah,'" McGee said. "The same as I am now with a lot of things. Like, 'All right' -- just kind of go with it."
Or maybe he just knew his own future. A few days before the Draft, Repke had tested the waters, asking McGee, "Jake, if tomorrow's the Draft, what teams are gonna draft you?"
McGee looked Repke straight in the face.
"You are," he said, as accurate as a left-handed, 100-mph fastball on the black.
David Adler is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.