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After a weekend series against the Padres that saw the earned run average of every human who stood on the mound at Coors Field skyrocket, the Rockies bullpen ERA of 3.91 jumped to 4.43 due to the woes of closer Wade Davis, who gave up seven runs over three outings that lasted a total of 2.1 innings pitches.
The rest of Colorado’s relievers racked up a 9.00 ERA during the four-game set and much consternation was made over their ineffectiveness. Assuming Davis gets back on track – his pedigree strongly suggests its likely – and Scott Oberg continues to dominate in the 8th, some stabilization may be needed before this duo at the backend.
Bryan Shaw has gotten the nod from manager Bud Black during the 7th on most nights and he should be fine even after hiccups in his last two outings. Jairo Díaz has been emerging as a reliable option and despite a bloated 4.60 ERA owed to the anomaly that was the five-run 12th inning that gave San Diego an improbable 16-12 win, he’s been excellent over the other 14 appearances this season.
The identity of the man that may be the catalyst for stabilizing the bullpen was once a closer for this team in 2016 during a time of uncertainty in an organization searching for its first playoff appearance since 2009. And the name of this former 9th inning notable may surprise you.
Entering to the same tune as his namesake in the film Major League, Carlos Estévez strolled in from the bullpen to sounds of “Wild Thing” and saved 11 games with the Rockies three years ago. Though he’s pitched honorably this season to a 3.97 ERA, he’s not the man to discuss.
The one who could change the fate of this bullpen is Jake McGee.
Acquired from Tampa Bay along with German Márquez during the 2015-16 offseason for Corey Dickerson and Kevin Padlo in one of the few trades that haven’t gone the Rays way in recent years, McGee saved 15 games for Colorado in the year before those consecutive playoff appearances. Between 2014-16, his 40 saves was just seven short of current closer Davis and amongst the top 30 highest totals for closers during that span.
When Jake McGee was reinstated from the injury list last month after missing 37 games, he joined a bullpen that had pitched to the best ERA in all of baseball for a month between May 13 and June 12. During that time McGee, contributed with 7.1 innings and only one earned run. Since his first appearance on May 18, he has a 1.93 ERA and trails only Oberg (1.20) and Chad Betts (1.04) for best earned run average during that span.
McGee’s season came to halt on April 2 in Tampa Bay during just the 6th game of the season with a left knee sprain. Any time a player has to leave the game because of an injury, there’s never any certainty that he’ll return as the same player.
Some never return at all. Considering McGee exited the game against the team in which he was originally drafted and signed, not to mention in the same building as his major league debut and home for his first six seasons, it would have been an incredibly symbolic ending to his career.
But McGee returned better than before, thanks to a little mechanical help, literally.
“I got fitted for a custom brace, a custom (hinged) brace, so I’ve never had that before,” he said of the brace commonly used by offensive lineman. “I’d always have something like a knee sleeve and something like that. So this is really heavy-duty and I shouldn’t ever have to worry about it happening again, which is nice.”
The 32-year-old first began working with the brace in Albuquerque during his rehab outings in early May, all of which came on road in such Pacific Coast League cities as El Paso and Fresno.
“It was nice. I got to throw like four bullpens and I got to face hitters like four times, get comfortable and get used to it. Since I’ve been back up here, I wanted to be one hundred percent. I feel like I am now,” McGee said.
The benefits of the brace have been more than just a sense of assurance that body won’t break down on him during an outing. In fact, it’s been just the opposite for him as both his strikeout and walk rates have improved since last year, not to mention the incredibly low earned run average.
“I think (the brace is) keeping me kind of taller on my backside. Not letting me bend as much. So I think it’s keeping me taller on the backside to help me with the high fastballs, when sometimes I would struggle, throw down way too much.”
McGee has also benefitted from the extensive work he did this past offseason in improving his mechanics and the overall performance of his body, joining pitchers like Jon Gray and Jeff Hoffman in traveling to the Driveline facilities in Kent, Washington.
“I kind of got an idea of how I wanted my slider to look from my fastball, so I had something to look at and work on… I found a place a Tampa called Kinetic Pro that had the Rapsodo and started to get all the data… Picked up a few things with them like arm exercises, different (plyometric exercises), and implemented that into my offseason.”
Maybe the best indicator that McGee is legitimately going to improve upon the 6.49 ERA of a season before has been his early effectiveness against left-handed hitters. Outside a stretch in the middle part of his career, he’s a rare breed of lefty pitcher that has been predominantly better against right-handed hitters.
But McGee has already experienced a change, albeit in a small sample size. In his matchups against left-handed hitters thus far in 2019, the Reno-raised reliever has yet to give up a run or even give up a walk and has been good for a 0.88 WHIP. He struck out four and feels a lot more confident with same-sided opponents at the plate.
“I feel really good. I’ve been able to locate my high fastball the last I’d say few outings. In Chicago, I was able to get up there consistently… And then New York, it was the same thing. I struck out the lefty. So I’ve been having a lot of success against lefties, too.”
Even when he’s surrendered a run, he’s been able to reframe the appearance with positivity. For instance, if you break down the run he gave up against the Mets on June 8 at Citi Field, you can understand McGee’s confidence right now.
“It was pretty much a pop-up. I think that was the highest homer I had ever given up. He hit it and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s an out. It might carry to the warning track, but maybe not more than that.’ But he hit it. That’s really high,” McGee said of the home run against one of the strongest pure power hitters in the game.
The “pop-up” from slugging rookie Pete Alonso, who has 24 home runs already and trails only Cody Bellinger for most in baseball, may have come off the bat with an exit velocity of 111.5 mph at a 48 degree angle, but it landed only 368 ft away and had an expected batting average of just .200; in other words, McGee made his pitch, but Alonso barely won the matchup and probably won’t again under similar circumstances.
The 40-man roster offers some uncertainty for Colorado in the way of left-handed relievers. Veteran Mike Dunn, much like Chris Rusin, has been designated for assignment, Harrison Musgrave on the 60-day IL, rookie Phillip Diehl has just one outing under his belt and James Pazos has struggled in Albuquerque and has yet to make an appearance in purple pinstripes.
With only one trade deadline this season on July 31, the Rockies will most certainly have a left-handed reliever with the ability to get out left-handed hitters atop their wish list.
If McGee can continue his uptick in effectiveness and prove to be everything he’s shown so far, Colorado may be able to focus on acquiring an even bigger, more impactful player for the final two months of the season as it looks to go even deeper in the playoffs for a second straight season.