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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Jake McGee

The veteran lefty reliever had a career year in the shortened 2020 season. Can it translate over a full season?

2020 World Series Game 2: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I don’t know about y’all, but the Francisco Lindor blockbuster still has me shook. In one fell swoop, the Mets secured a new face of the franchise and a proven middle-of-the-rotation starter all for a seemingly team-friendly return. At least one half of New York is doing their part to keep the winter hot stove fueled.

Regardless, there is still plenty to ponder in Yankees world. The Bronx outfit has a laundry list of needs still to address this offseason, not least of which includes the bullpen. So as we steadily plug along down the list of arms to reinforce the relief corps, we arrive today at former Dodger and World Series winner Jake McGee.

McGee’s career track record has been quite the roller coaster, ranging from a top-10 reliever in the game in some years to borderline unplayable in others. He began his career with the Rays, with whom he spent his first six years in the bigs. Prior to the 2016 season, he was traded alongside Germán Márquez to the Rockies, with whom he endured a rather... well rocky tenure. He was released by Colorado a week before the 2020 regular season kicked off, and was promptly picked up by the Dodgers for around the league minimum.

The Yankees are no doubt familiar with the veteran southpaw, as he terrorized their lineup for five-plus years coming out of the Rays bullpen. In 27 innings pitched against the Bombers, he carried a 3.67 ERA, 2.30 FIP, and 3.08 xFIP, striking out 32 while allowing a lone home run.

Now the 34-year-old lefty hits the free agent market for the first time. McGee was quite effective for Los Angeles in the abbreviated 2020 season, throwing 20.1 innings of 2.66 ERA, 1.67 FIP, and 2.10 xFIP relief with 33 strikeouts and only two home runs surrendered: all good enough to lead Dodgers relievers with 0.7 fWAR. And encouragingly for the Yankees, there are several signs that suggest he can be equally impactful going forward.

Mcgee added about a mile-and-a-half per hour in fastball velocity and gained about two inches more rise on the four-seamer relative to the previous two years. This increased velocity and late life at the top of the zone paid off handsomely. Even though he threw a higher percentage of pitches in the zone and generated the highest swing rate of his career, batters still could not touch his fastball. His zone contact rate fell from a career average of 82.6% to 70.1% while his whiff rate jumped from 22.2% to 34.4%.

He reaped the results of this potent combination of pinpoint command and swing-and-miss stuff, posting a career-high strikeout rate of 41.8% — tops among the current class of free agent relievers — after averaging 26.5% for the rest of his career. He also cut his walk rate nearly in half relative to his career numbers, walking a measly 3.8% of batters he faced. Both marks place him in the 96th percentile or better, while his expected ERA and expected wOBA sat in the 97th percentile.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because McGee profiles a lot like a left-handed Chad Green. Both predominantly lean on their high velocity four-seamers thrown in the zone. Both generate sky-high whiff and strikeout rates. Chad Green recently redeveloped his breaking ball to give hitters a different look, and there is no reason to believe that Sam Briend and Matt Blake could not do the same for McGee’s below-average slider.

The biggest concern for McGee is that when hitters make contact, he gets hit hard... really hard. This is the case for many fastballers who live in the zone. Last season he sat in the bottom one percent and four percent in the league in exit velocity and hard hit rate respectively, and in the years he has struggled, the home run ball is the culprit. As mentioned above, he mitigates this by largely missing bats altogether, but as Yankees fans know all too well, this can be a dangerous game.

The Yankees’ bullpen in 2020 was at its most vulnerable state in the last few years. And with the subtractions of Tommy Kahnle and Jonathan Holder, there are two fewer reliable options to call out of the ‘pen. Neither FanGraphs nor MLB Trade Rumors included the southpaw in their top-50 free agent lists, so it is hard to find a projection of the cost to acquire McGee’s services. However, given his age and spotty track record, he could wind up being one of the steals of the offseason.