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New Colorado Rockies LHP Jake McGee brings heavy fastball, late inning experience to Denver

The Colorado Rockies traded for a high-profile reliever on Thursday. Now that he's here, how does Jake McGee fit in Denver?

Jake McGee ought to succeed with power stuff in Colorado.
Jake McGee ought to succeed with power stuff in Colorado.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Let's forget for a second that the Colorado Rockies' trade of Corey Dickerson to the Tampa Bay Rays for Jake McGee on Thursday afternoon doesn't make a whole lot of sense on paper. It's weird—everybody kind of knows it's weird—but it's reality, and so, forward we march.

What the Rockies now have is a good, powerful left-handed reliever. Could they have used a starting pitcher instead? Sure! Or maybe a top prospect? Yeah! Could they have made a separate trade involving Charlie Blackmon or Carlos Gonzalez or somebody? Yup! They could've done a lot. But they have McGee now, so let's get to know the newest member of Colorado's bullpen.

Scouting Jake McGee

McGee, 29, comes to the Rockies with two years of control remaining until he's due to become a free agent ahead of the 2018 season. Through arbitration, the Sparks, Nevada high school product will make $4.8 million in 2016—a nice raise for a guy who made $3.55 million last summer.

Forgetting whether or not it's economical for the Rockies to have McGee at that salary, in a vacuum, he's a bargain for less than $5 million considering his strengths and track record out of the bullpen. There are negatives, of course, but on the positive side McGee has become one of the more dominant left-handed relievers in the baseball the last several years. Some applicable stats from the last five seasons:

Year Organization G IP ERA ERA+ FIP WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 K:BB
2011 Tampa Bay 37 28.0 4.50 85 4.70 1.500 9.6 1.6 3.9 8.7 2.25
2012 Tampa Bay 69 55.1 1.95 198 1.81 0.795 5.4 0.5 1.8 11.9 6.64
2013 Tampa Bay 71 62.2 4.02 96 3.42 1.181 7.5 1.1 3.2 10.8 3.41
2014 Tampa Bay 73 71.1 1.89 197 1.73 0.897 6.1 0.3 2.0 11.4 5.63
2015 Tampa Bay 39 37.1 2.41 165 2.33 0.938 6.5 0.7 1.9 11.6 6.00
Career Tampa Bay 297 259.2 2.77 139 2.58 1.017 6.7 0.7 2.5 11.1 4.43

And for an interesting—but not perfect—comparison, here are the same years from Craig Kimbrel. Of course, Kimbrel is a stronger reliever than McGee, but I post this to show that the Rockies' new lefty isn't as far off as you think, and both pitchers were worth 3.7 fWAR across 2014 and 2015 combined, in virtually identical innings pitched. To give a frame of reference on McGee using the closer with whom you are likely more familiar:

Year Organization G IP ERA ERA+ FIP WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 K:BB
2011 Atlanta 79 77.0 2.10 183 1.52 1.039 5.6 0.4 3.7 14.8 3.97
2012 Atlanta 63 62.2 1.01 399 0.78 0.654 3.9 0.4 2.0 16.7 8.29
2013 Atlanta 68 67.0 1.21 311 1.93 0.881 5.2 0.5 2.7 13.2 4.90
2014 Atlanta 63 61.2 1.61 223 1.83 0.908 4.4 0.3 3.8 13.9 3.65
2015 San Diego 61 59.1 2.58 142 2.68 1.045 6.1 0.9 3.3 13.2 3.95
Career ATL/SD 355 348.1 1.63 233 1.72 0.927 5.0 0.5 3.4 14.5 4.33

Kimbrel obviously is better and more consistent than McGee (really, more than any other reliever in the game). He misses more bats, has a harder fastball, and has proven more difficult to hit. But McGee has historically shown better command, possesses very strong strikeout rates, and has logged similar WHIP and K:BB numbers across his career. That should not be ignored, nor should their fWAR output the last two summers.

I spoke to Mat Germain, a writer for our fellow SB Nation site DRays Bay, who was unsurprisingly high on the lefty.

"Rockies fans are going to love Jake McGee," Germain says.

"He throws an outstanding four-seamer with rise the vast majority of the time, and although he does induce a fair amount of pop-ups, he's able to keep the ball away from hitters, which ensures they have a hard time squaring anything up."

Germain is right about that whole "vast majority of the time" thing; in the last three seasons, McGee has thrown his fastball 93.0%, 96.4%, and 92.7% of the time, respectively, according to FanGraphs. Frankly, that's insane, but it's obviously been working for him—and that may be one reason that attracted the Rockies to him in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, research has suggested harder stuff generally works better at Coors Field, and if that's what general manager Jeff Bridich and the Rockies' front office is banking on, they'll certainly get their fill with McGee. Our friends at Beyond The Box Score took a very optimistic angle on the lefty when evaluating this trade on Thursday:

Since he became a full-time member of the Tampa bullpen four years ago, he's ranked among the game's best relief pitchers. His 6.4 fWAR places seventh among qualified relievers, and while he fares a bit worse by RA9-WAR — where he falls to 18th in the standings — he still stands apart from most of his peers. As projections tend to do for relievers, Steamer takes a fairly pessimistic stand for his 2016, foreseeing 65.0 innings of 0.8-fWAR ball. That's nevertheless a solid amount, in line with the predictions for Mark Melancon and Jeurys Familia.

How does McGee perform so well? He gets strikeouts, and lots of them — he's fanned 32.0 percent of the batters he's faced in each of the past four seasons, good enough for 14th in the majors. On the whole, he's maintained great control, walking only 6.4 percent of opponents in those campaigns; aside from a fluky 2013, he's also kept the ball in the yard, with a home run rate of 1.8 percent over that span. Take remarkable production in the three true outcomes, add in a low BABIP (.272) and high strand rate (77.7 percent), and you'll get a top-notch reliever.

If it seems like a reliever who throws only a fastball might be in trouble at a ballpark like Coors Field, I refer you to some very interesting comments Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon made to us at FanFest last weekend on the importance of a good fastball:

I think if I was a pitcher and I could decide what kind of pitcher I wanted to be to be successful at Coors Field, I would really focus on my fastball. I think in order to be successful, pitchers have to have a good fastball. And I think it's kind of easy to say, 'Hey, throw it hard.' That's nothing new, but I really think that fastballs play up in Denver for a few reasons and I think that's a way to be successful. Command your fastball or just have a really good fastball, but generally, you need both.

McGee has most certainly focused on his fastball, as Blackmon suggests. And as you'd expect from a dominant reliever regardless of handedness, he's no specialist, either.

"McGee works extremely well against both righties and lefties," Germain says, "something that makes him an outstanding closer. If it wasn't for budget issues, he would have competed to return as the Rays' closer in 2016."

McGee is fascinating for his splits if only because he works significantly better against righties than lefties; across his career, righties have slashed just .190/.256/.280, while lefties have logged rates of .224/.268/.348 — both more than respectable, of course, but certainly they indicate McGee ought not be used as just a lefty specialist.

Now, there are downsides to McGee, too—namely health concerns, both recent and long-term. He suffered through a bone spur in his throwing elbow last winter and missed nearly two months of baseball after undergoing surgery to clean things up.

Then, he missed another month later last summer with a torn meniscus. He pitched well in between those injuries, and neither one ought to impact him moving forward, but they are worth noting.

He also had elbow reconstruction surgery nearly seven years ago—an eternity in professional baseball—but revisions do occur, and I suppose it's always something to keep in the back of your mind with a pitcher as experienced as McGee.

Perhaps related to McGee's two relatively minor injuries from 2015, his velocity was down fairly significantly last season. After tossing an average fastball the last three seasons at 95.5 mph (2012), 96.1 mph (2013), and 96.4 mph (2014), his velocity dropped to 94.4 mph in 2015, according to FanGraphs. Now fully healthy entering spring training, hopefully that'll be a moot point for the Rockies, but it bears watching this summer.

Nevertheless, Germain is optimistic about McGee's fit in Denver.

"Now seven years removed from Tommy John surgery," he says, "if [McGee] remains healthy, he'll be the anchor in the Rockies' bullpen for the next two seasons."

We can only hope.

Some video:

The center field TV camera angle not withstanding, McGee has a free and easy delivery that plays very smooth for a power reliever. That's a good thing, theoretically making it more repeatable and cutting down the chances fatigue and overuse will expose him to injury, but obviously, baseball mechanics aren't a settled science and nothing is a guarantee. Now, if the Rockies can get McGee back to the velocities he was registering in 2013 and 2014, they'll be in great shape.

Jake McGee's best comp on the Rockies

Frankly, it's tough to pick a comp for Jake McGee; certainly nobody pitching for the current version of the Rockies fits the bill as a power lefty who throws late innings and racks up strikeouts. At his best several years ago, perhaps Rex Brothers could have filled a similar role to McGee, but Brothers' command was always far less certain than McGee's, and the former Rockies reliever relied far more on offspeed pitches than does the newcomer.

From a pitch selection standpoint, think of McGee as somebody similar to Rafael Betancourt—but even more reliant on one pitch. With the Rockies, Betancourt threw his fastball three-quarters of the time, and for a while, that worked until age and injuries caught up in time. McGee has a legitimately long window before those variables will catch up to him, and he relies on his fastball even more than Betancourt ever did, but the way those two relievers set up hitters (relative to their opposite handedness) may well be our best comp available.

What to expect in 2016

There's a chance that the Rockies could immediately move McGee to a team looking for a closer or late-inning reliever before spring training begins. That's probably not very likely, but I suppose it's not out of the realm of possibilities; if the Rockies exclusively want to maximize his trade value to return prospects, now may be as good a time as any to flip McGee before he has to pitch at Coors Field and risk losing value coming from a pitcher's park in Tampa to a hitter's park in Denver.

But assuming he starts the season with Colorado, as is the likeliest outcome, I wouldn't be surprised if he's the de facto closer—or at least the primary option—come Opening Day. Speaking to the Denver Post, both McGee and Bridich played up the fact that no bullpen roles have yet been set; that's fine, and probably sensible, with veterans like Jason Motte and Chad Qualls in the mix and capable of throwing late innings in close games, too.

It may well serve the Rockies to be flexible with McGee's role in 2016, anyways; if lefties are due up in the eighth inning of a game, for example, using him then while saving Motte for the ninth, may make sense, or vice versa with a different opposing lineup. Closer by committee probably isn't ever truly ideal, but the Rockies theoretically have enough power arms in the back of their bullpen with those three, Justin Miller, Jairo Diaz, and others to mix and match, assuming health.

When Adam Ottavino returns midseason, things may shake out differently, and McGee may move to a set-up role. Or, the lefty may install himself as the closer all year while Ottavino works his way back conservatively and the Rockies plan for 2017 with a deeper, higher quality bullpen. Also, there's probably a pretty good chance the Rockies look to trade McGee at the July deadline, which would probably be the most sensible time to move the reliever, assuming health and all that other stuff.

Whatever the case, that will all be hashed out soon enough. There's plenty to dislike about this trade, with Dickerson and a young, intriguing third baseman shipped to Tampa Bay in exchange for not a starting pitcher and not a top prospect, but don't let the Rockies' bizarre non-plan sour you on McGee's ability. From a pure on-field standpoint, the Rockies have never had a left-handed reliever with a track record like Jake McGee, and if he pitches in 2016 the way he has thus far in his career, he will turn heads at Coors Field.