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McGee's unique approach gives Giants their lockdown closer

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Jake McGee

Jake McGee fired his last warmup pitch Saturday afternoon and then patiently waited behind the mound as the ball made its way around the infield. When it was returned to him, he pulled his Giants hat off with his left hand and looked inside it, taking several deep breaths. 

McGee put it back on and then stepped on the rubber. He threw a 94 mph fastball that former Colorado Rockies teammate Josh Fuentes took for a strike, and then he threw 15 more, ranging from 93.1 to 96.2 mph. The Rockies, like the Mariners and Padres before them, reacted to every one like they didn't know what's coming, and McGee calmly locked up his fourth save in four chances. 

The 35-year-old left-hander has been a savior for the Giants thus far, giving them a trusted and unique closer. He has thrown 72 pitches and 65 of them have been four-seam fastballs, none of which have resulted in a base hit. McGee is telling the best hitters in the world what's coming and not even breaking a sweat, which makes you wonder what kind of scouting report he would even need from the inside of that hat. 

"It just says, 'Feel the ball, take a breath, pound the zone.' " McGee said Saturday. "That's kind of my three things that I focus on before I even start an outing. It has my wife and daughter's names in there, too."

McGee has no need for any further instructions. He threw his fastball 96.4 percent of the time last year while posting a 2.66 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Giants certainly were not going to mess with that success. After camp started, they signed McGee to a two-year deal with an option that unofficially installed him as their closer. 

 

The Giants have put together a staff that has three pitching coaches, and they support them with a deep analytics department and the latest technological advances, all with the end goal of finding new ways to shape a breaking ball or tweak a veteran's repertoire. But with McGee, it continues to be "call fastball, throw fastball, shake hands." 

"You can look at it a number of different ways," president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said this spring. "The game is getting really sophisticated with game planning -- we hear a lot about that -- and we have so much data available nowadays, and in that regard sometimes we might have an inclination to go with a pitcher with multiple weapons just because it feels like it gives you more avenues to game plan.

"The flip side of that is it doesn't really matter how you do it as long as you're able to perform. Having one elite pitch, even one you lean on heavily, it gets the job done. Why are you going to mess with that and start throwing a second and third pitch?"

The rival Dodgers asked the same thing when the Rockies released McGee a few days before the opener last year. He gave up more than a hit per inning in 2019 and had his lowest strikeout rate since 2016, but the Dodgers correctly felt they could get McGee back to being the pitcher who signed a three-year, $27 million deal just two years earlier. 

McGee, who previously had six strong seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, has always led with his fastball, but the usage has been inconsistent. There was one season where he threw a curveball 13 percent of the time, and in other years the slider has seen lots of use. He always came back to the four-seamer, though, even if he didn't always know exactly why. 

"When I was in Tampa I didn't know that much about the fastball," McGee said earlier this season. "I just knew it worked and I just threw it a lot."

The Dodgers asked him to throw it even more and also changed the way he threw. They had him use the Clean Fuego, a training baseball that looks like it has had a chunk sliced right off. McGee credits it for helping him keep his hand higher and behind the ball more, and once he cleaned up his mechanics, it was time to dive into the analytics. The Dodgers told him to stick to the top of the zone, something the Giants have done with their fastball-heavy pitchers, particularly Caleb Baragar. 

 

"They showed me the numbers and if I pitch higher in the zone -- even if it's middle-high -- my numbers go way up," McGee said. "It just gave me confidence knowing that everything was moving right and if I say up in the zone with my fastball I'll have success."

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Even with the strong season, McGee found a cold free agent market. He was a 34-year-old who hadn't been a closer in five years, and teams cut back this past offseason, primarily with veterans who were viewed as non-elite options. In mid-February, the Giants pounced. 

"It was a pretty slow free agency," McGee said. "It was a little different. It felt like everyone kind of fell in line -- once a team was after one guy, it seemed like every team was calling. It happened for me pretty late but I had quite a few teams calling all at the same time. I

"had multiple offers from different teams, but the Giants were really appealing to me with the younger staff and analytics-wise they're (at the) forefront and I get everything I need."

The Giants identified McGee as an extreme strike-thrower and someone who could face lefties and righties and miss bats. If McGee averaged 98 mph with his fastball, they might have gotten pushed out of the market. But at 94 mph, with fascinating vertical and horizontal movement characteristics, they were able to lock up a closer for a fraction of the price. 

The Giants haven't yet named McGee their "closer," but at this point perhaps it's better that they don't. Nobody needs to name McGee's role, just as nobody needs to tell you what he's about to throw. 

He's the new Giants closer. He's going to throw you a fastball. Good luck. 

"It's just a very unique pitch and you don't really see it very often," said outfielder Alex Dickerson. "It's really hard to adjust and you've got to adjust mid-at-bat, especially if you haven't seen him before. I think you're seeing that with him. The low pitches find a way in the zone, they look down and then they end up being knee-high, and then the high one ends up being over their head and they end up swinging. 

"He's just a nightmare to face, to be honest."

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