Baseball analysis is a difficult art to master. Even more challenging? Trying to project a player’s future performance, particularly when they have never played an MLB game. Evaluating prospects, particularly young pitchers, may be the most arduous task when it comes to sports analysis. Nevertheless, whether you’re running a front office, get paid to write about baseball for a living, or simply want to win your dynasty fantasy baseball league, this is a skill we are all constantly trying to refine.
By now, I’m sure you’re well aware of the brilliance that is the Tampa Bay Rays. The team entered 2021 with just a $66 million payroll, yet managed to overcome to win the AL East and earn the #1 seed, despite playing in a division with two teams (Yankees, Red Sox), spending more than three times as much as time. When it comes to accumulating value per dollar, no team does a better job than that than them, allowing them to deal with their payroll deficits.
However, none of this is possible without an astute amateur scouting and player development staff. This is a team notorious for allocating a strong amount of their expenditures towards player development, and they are committed to getting the most out of any player they are able to bring into their organization. This is a model that has had a substantial amount of success, and the hits just keep on coming.
When you’re a small-market organization, it is imperative that you constantly develop as many young players into impact contributors. If not, the whole operation fails. Thus, striking gold in the amateur draft, particularly in the early stages of it, is imperative. Fortunately for the Rays, the 2018 draft will go down as a pivotal moment for the franchise. After all, not only did selecting pitcher Matthew Liberatore with the 16th overall pick eventually lead to the acquisition of outfielder Randy Arozarena, but with the 31st overall pick, they selected the best player in the entire draft.
Heck, there’s a chance the Rays didn’t just get the best player in the entire draft, but someone who’ll eventually find himself as the best pitcher in the entire sport. Yes, that’s how dominant Shane McClanahan has been at the MLB level. Once cast aside due to multiple reasons, he’s overcome any doubt to ascend into a true ace and is doing so in a way that few could have anticipated. Consequently, there is a lot of reflection to be done; this can serve as a major teaching point when it comes to analyzing young pitchers moving forward. So, what can we learn from the rise of McClanahan? It’s time to put our thinking caps on!
Is it more optimal for a drafted high-school pitcher to sign with the team that drafts him, or go to college? Generally, it’s a case-by-case basis depending on the person’s interests and their anticipated signing bonus. That being said, going to college was the perfect option for a player like McClanahan.
Described as a “late bloomer” by MLB Pipeline, the key for McClanahan always came down to him growing into the pitcher he had the projection to become, as Perfect Game put it in 2015:
“Shane McClanahan is a 2015 LHP with a 6-2 165 lb. frame from Cape Coral, FL who attends Cape Coral. McClanahan has a long lean build with room to fill out and add strength. Short arm action to a mid 3/4 slot. Slight pause after rocker step, stays balanced and online with delivery. Repeats delivery well. Pitches to both sides of plate with fastball, fastball has good life when down in zone. Has good arm speed on fastball, will slow it a bit on developing change up with run. Slider shows tight spin and good tilt to it. Gets good extension and creates a down hill angle to plate. There is more velocity to come. Named to the Top Prospect List. Signed with South Florida. Outstanding Student.”
At the time, McClanahan was sitting in the low-90s, which is already impressive velocity as a high-school prospect, especially given the projection left in his frame. After attending high school in Florida, the lefty opted to attend the University of South Florida, bypassing the Mets, who selected him in the 26th round of the 2015 draft; there was a chance for him to go much, much higher in the draft three years from them.
Unfortunately, things immediately got off on the wrong foot. Before he could even pitch one college inning, McClanahan had to undergo Tommy John surgery, thus missing his entire freshman year. Thus, not only was he behind the eight-ball, but there was no guarantee he’d be able to come back his sophomore season and be someone the Bulls could trust to start every weekend for them. Ultimately, though, this ended up being a moot point.
Not only did McClanahan step into South Florida’s rotation and stay healthy, but he dominated, posting a 33.3% strikeout rate across 15 starts. Talk about a lefty with juice! For an encore, McClanahan decided he wasn’t missing enough bats, bumping his strikeout rate to 36.4% as a junior. Clearly, missing bats was not a problem for him, so what gives?
Ultimately, it all comes down to his command or lack thereof. In his two college seasons, he walked 13.1% of the batters he faced, leading to many questioning his ability to start at the next level, as MLB Pipeline pointed out at the time:
“While McClanahan’s strikeout rate has been really high, his walk rate has been as well. That, plus a delivery that features a fairly big recoil, has led some evaluators to project him as a future reliever — albeit one who could get to the big leagues in a hurry. But with a loose and very athletic frame, McClanahan might be able to get away with those mechanics. He’s elicited some Chris Sale comps, with some scouts thinking he has better stuff now, at least with the fastball, than Sale did in his Draft year.”
After entering his junior year as a potential top-ten pick, McClanahan’s fall went further than anyone could have expected; he was selected by the Rays with the 31st overall pick in the draft. Although he did receive a slightly above-slot signing bonus, to see him fall as far as he did, as other college pitchers flew off the board, was quite surprising. After all, this was a player ranked in the top ten by both Baseball America and ESPN, while MLB Pipeline (14th) wasn’t far off. Simply by that logic, that would qualify as a “steal”, but little did anyone know what the Rays were truly getting.
To be fair, the signs were starting to show when he vaulted from Low-A to Double-A in his first professional season, posting a 30.6% strikeout rate in the process. The most impressive part, though? The improvement in command. After being promoted to High-A, McClanahan had just a 5% walk rate for the rest of the season, which was stunning considering he was one year removed from falling in the draft due to concerns about his walk rate. Oh, in the face of concerns about him sticking as a starter, he also managed to throw 120.2 innings. Not too shabby of a professional debut!
Add on a postseason appearance for the Rays in 2020, and, clearly, McClanahan would be seen as one of the elite pitching prospects in the game, right? Not quite! Baseball Prospectus‘ rank of McClanahan as the 80th-best prospect was the highest among the major prospect outlets, with the “reliever risk” still looming large. Well, clearly, McClanahan didn’t get the memo.
The Rise of An Ace
After trading Blake Snell to the Padres and losing Charlie Morton in free agency, the Rays were going to need production from unknown contributors to continue to be the pitching juggernaut they had established themselves as. Naturally, they allowed the sixth-fewest runs per game, earning the #1 seed in the American League. How did they do so? McClanahan is a major reason why.
With the minor-league season delayed for one month, McClanahan didn’t get a chance to pitch in Triple-A before earning a promotion to the majors, but it’s not as though the Rays needed to see anything else from him. On April 29th, he was called up to the big leagues to make a start against the A’s, where he immediately showcased his prowess with an absurd 23.7% swinging-strike rate and a 41% called-strike + whiff rate (CSW%). I’m sorry, what? Immediately, our own Nick Pollack was clearly impressed:
“The southpaw featured 101 mph with life in the first inning, paired with a ridiculous 93 mph slider, a 90 mph changeup, and an 83 mph curveball. Remember how much I fawned over Sixto Sánchez last year in his first outing? McClanahan is right up there. Seriously, this kid is as legit as you’ll see.”
The problem? Even with how effective McClanahan was going to be on a per-pitch basis, it wasn’t clear how long he’d be allowed to go in games. Surely, the Rays would be quick to monitor his pitch count, while they wouldn’t want to put him in disadvantageous situations working multiple times through the order. As the season went on, McClanahan did eclipse 100 pitches one time, but he still averaged under five innings per start for the whole year, which isn’t the volume you’re looking for from an ace.
That being said, with the 10th-best preseason odds for the AL Cy Young, there was at least some hope that the workload limitations would go away over time. At the same time, though, that optimism wasn’t shared by everyone. While fantasy baseball differs greatly from “real life”, you generally are looking to draft the best pitchers, particularly ones who can strike batters out at a high level. The NFBC Main Event consists of competitive fantasy baseball drafters putting a considerable amount of money on the line. Thus, the fact that McClanahan was just the 26th pitcher is telling; if those who had the most at stake couldn’t trust McClanahan, who could?
In retrospect, it’s very telling to look back at this slight pushback. Why? Well, McClanahan hasn’t just performed at a high level, he’s arguably been the best pitcher in baseball:
- SIERA: 1st
- xFIP: 1st
- K Rate: 1st
- K-BB%: 1st
- Swinging-Strike Rate: 1st
- CSW%: 1st
Let me put it this way: the league’s strikeout leader also ranks in the top ten in walk rate and ground-ball rate. Talk about a complete pitcher! McClanahan has not allowed more than three earned runs in any of his 16 starts, nor has he had a start with a SIERA above 3.21. Essentially, in his worst start of the season, he was equivalent to Joe Musgrove and Carlos Rodón. Yes, McClanahan at his worst has been the same as two of the top candidates for the NL Cy Young award. If that doesn’t describe the greatness of McClanahan, I don’t know what does!
So, how has McClanahan become this mythical creature? It all comes down to perhaps the best arsenal in all of baseball.
A Truly Dominant Arsenal
What is the most important feature of an arsenal? Conventional wisdom it all starts with the fastball, but what about having strong off-speed pitches as well? Meanwhile, does it matter if you can’t command it properly? In the case of McClanahan, why not have your cake and eat it too?
Now, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, last season, McClanahan’s fastball was a notable liability, allowing a .410 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) and generating a swing-and-miss on just 19.3% of the swings against it. For someone throwing 96-97 MPH, that isn’t what you would expect, but, then again, while fastball velocity is important, it isn’t the only significant feature.
With below-average vertical movement, McClanahan’s fastball was much more of a horizontal pitch, making it less optimized to rack up whiffs. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say his command of the pitch was not ideal:
Now, fast forward to 2022, and things have completely changed. McClanahan’s whiff rate on the fastball has jumped to 28.3%, while he’s allowing just a .322 xwOBA against it. In other words, batters are making less contact against it, while the quality of contact is worse as well.
So, what changed? A few things. For starters, McClanahan has gotten rid of 1.5 inches of drop on his vertical movement, taking it from a pitch with below-average vertical movement to a plus pitch in terms of its vertical ride. Hence, he can locate up in the zone much better than he had previously:
Locating your fastball over the heart of the plate is no bueno, as they say. With that extra vertical ride, McClanahan clearly has more faith throwing his fastball where you should – at the top of the zone – leading to whiffs like this:
That’s what a 97 MPH fastball is supposed to look like! Adding enough vertical break to a pitch with phenomenal horizontal movement makes McClanahan’s fastball a dominant offering up and away to righties, as evident here. However, what if I told you this was his least effective pitch?
Wait, what? Yep, that’s what it’s like to have not one, not two, but THREE dominant off-speed pitches. I mean, where do we even start? The curveball, which has become McClanahan’s most used secondary pitch, seems like a good place to start. Compared to last year, the pitch has two extra inches of vertical drop and is about a tick slower than it was last year, leading to a greater than 15 MPH difference between that and his fastball. Now, it doesn’t generate as many whiffs (32.8%) as you’d expect, but it’s a pitch he feels very comfortable dropping in for a called strike, explaining the increased usage for it. Plus, it makes hitters do this:
As you can see, this is clearly a vertical pitch with no platoon splits whatsoever, allowing McClanahan to thrive despite being a lefty. This is in contrast to his slider, which will be a sharper pitch that he relies on whenever a lefty is up to bat. That being said, located down to in, it’s not an easy pitch to make contact with:
That’s clear here, as well as the 45.5% whiff rate against it. Now, this is a pitch that righties have historically been able to barrel up when left over the plate, so McClanahan is playing a risky game when he throws it. That being said, as a pitch to mix in when you need a whiff, an offering that gets a whiff on nearly half the swings against it surely will do the trick.
Heck, we haven’t mentioned McClanahan’s changeup, which has also been a revelation this season. Despite it being hit hard (.343 xwOBA) last season, this is an offering that the lefty is throwing more than three times as much (8% to 25.4%) this season, and it mainly comes down to comfort in terms of command. In 2021, this was not a pitch McClanahan could command with any consistency:
Now, compare it to 2022:
Much more consistency! Unlike his other two off-speed pitches, McClanahan’s changeup doesn’t feature much vertical drop but instead is a pitch with plus (2.3 inches above average) horizontal movement. Therefore, it is imperative that he keeps the pitch down and away in order to generate whiffs and not play into a right-handed hitter’s bat path. With a 46% whiff rate and .168 xwOBA allowed, it’s suddenly one of the best performing pitches in baseball, and all speaks to putting it where it’s supposed to be put, leading to swings like this:
Poor Blue Jays. Then again, the same can be said for every team McClanahan has faced this season. In fact, for the season, only the White Sox have a higher wRC+ against lefties than Toronto. Did this faze McClanahan? Of course not; he pitched seven innings, allowed one earned run, and had a 10:1 K-BB ratio. What else needs to be said? Right now, you can’t really make a case for anyone else starting the All-Star Game and being the front-runner in the AL Cy Young award. Rather, it’s time to ponder if he’s simply the best pitcher in all of baseball.
Reflection Time: Debunking Myths
While McClanahan definitely had his proponents both as a prospect and heading into this year, it’s almost certain that no one rightfully saw THIS happening. Was this a mistake? Not exactly; expecting any pitcher to be as dominant as he has been, sans Jacob deGrom, would be being quite optimistic. That being said, we learn history to improve our knowledge and learn from previous oversights, which ought to be done here.
LESSON #1: Pitchers Don’t Need To Establish Their Fastball
For practically the entire existence of baseball, the goal of pitching has been to establish one’s fastball. If you played baseball as a child, it’s likely you heard this encouragement several times. Intuitively, it makes sense; a fastball is generally the easiest pitch to command for a strike, and is the one pitch (sans some changeups) that can be located at the top of the zone without substantial risk.
However, they say to throw your best pitches most often for a reason. For instance, prior to the start of this season, here is the weighted on-base average (wOBA) against each pitch since the start of 2015:
- Fastball: .350 wOBA
- Sinker: .349 wOBA
- Cutter: .315 wOBA
- Changeup: .292 wOBA
- Slider: .269 wOBA
- Curveball: .263 wOBA
- Splitter: .257 wOBA
Naturally, fastballs tend to generate fewer whiffs and are easier to barrel up, particularly if one doesn’t have an ideal shape with it. As such, the league-wide fastball rate had mainly been on the decline entering this season:
- 2015: 57.7%
- 2016: 56.7%
- 2017: 55.6%
- 2018: 54.9%
- 2019: 52.5%
- 2020: 50.5%
- 2021: 51.1%
- 2022: 55.2%
Now, it’s interesting to see the league-wide fastball rate kick back up this season, though it’s early enough in the season to wait for a larger sample size. Regardless, pitch usage is much more relevant to analyze on a per-pitcher basis, which makes McClanahan stand out. Even with the improvements he’s made with his fastball this season, it’s still a pitch that naturally gets hit harder than his other offerings. Consequently, per Fangraphs, he is throwing the third-fewest amount of fastballs (35.6%) among starting pitchers, and is in company with a lot of other notable names; Logan Webb (35.4%), Shane Bieber (40%), and Dylan Cease (43.1%) all rank in the top-ten in lowest fastball rate, including cutters. Rather than fret about establishing their fastball, these pitchers are simply content working with their best offerings, and they’re having a lot of success doing so.
On June 20th, McClanahan threw a fastball just 15% of the time against the Yankees, who currently have the best wRC+ in all of baseball. How did he fare? Oh, with a casual six innings with just one earned run and an 8:1 K:BB ratio. Not too shabby! In fact, he’s kept his fastball rate under 40% in four straight games, a trend that is very much worth monitoring considering his dominance (1.98 SIERA, 33% K-BB) during that stretch. This is someone who knows how to maximize his arsenal, and he’s doing just that, which speaks to the player development prowess the Rays possess.
LESSON #2: Reliever Risk Is True For Everyone; The Rays Don’t Simply Hold Their Pitchers Back
The first aspect of this isn’t necessarily statistically based, but more anecdotally true. The term “reliever risk” is often used for pitchers who either throw hard, have a previous injury history, or have an effortful delivery. Yet, as starting pitcher usage continues to decrease – they are averaging nearly an inning less per start (5.15) than they were in 2011 (6.03), the dichotomy between starters and relievers will continue to be blurred. For instance, let’s look at what legendary pitching coach Tom House had to say on the matter:
The future of MLB pitching is:
1) 12-man pitching staffs
2) Nobody will throw more than 3 innings or 45-50 pitches in an outing
— Tom House 〽️ (@tomhouse) June 30, 2022
Now, we are still years out from this taking place, but the case in point is that at a time when bullpen quality and depth are at an all-time high, innings volume matters significantly less. Most importantly, though, we still struggle mightily to truly understand which pitchers have more “reliever risk” than the average pitcher. I mean, just anecdotally, wouldn’t you rather take your chances with a pitcher who clearly has the quality to stick in a rotation? After all, McClanahan had multiple plus pitches, had refined his command (thus his effectiveness), and also pitched over 120 innings; if he qualified as a future reliever, then who doesn’t? Outside of the fear of a second Tommy John surgery, which is much more difficult to recover, the reasons to be concerned may have been overblown by conventional wisdom; the prototype of a starting pitcher is changing dramatically.
Meanwhile, there’s one other confounding factor here, and that is the team McClanahan plays for. Historically, the Rays have been a team that hasn’t stretched out their starting pitchers, while utilizing creating strategies to gain an edge. There are a lot of theories why that would be the case, but, mainly, it comes down to optimization; if pitchers perform much worse the third time through the order, why not use a fresh reliever out of the bullpen? That being said, when Tampa has a pitcher they have ultimate confidence in, they let them ride. Tyler Glasnow, for instance, was averaging 6.29 innings per start last season before having to undergo Tommy John surgery. Charlie Morton, meanwhile, averaged more innings per start (5.88) in 2019 with the Rays than he did the previous season in Houston (5.57), or 2021 with the Braves (5.6). Yes, there are specific pitchers that Tampa may be more careful with, but with their true aces, they let them fly. That should be the expectation with McClanahan moving forward.
MOST IMPORTANT LESSON: Pitching Analysis Is Hard!
This takes us back to the original premise of this article- aces can come where you least expect them. Whereas the sample size can be much larger for young hitters, with more statistically consistent data, there are so many different variables that can completely change a pitcher’s trajectory. After all, all it can take is a gain in velocity to potentially unlock one’s potential, while a very minor tweak can completely overhaul their command. Then, you add in the fact that pitches can not rate out well, but simply are much more difficult to hit due to deception, mirroring, sequencing, and other factors, and pitching analysis is an art that is nearly impossible to feel confident in.
Heck, we haven’t even mentioned the injury risk every pitcher faces. There’s a reason why some teams can be wary about investing in pitchers with premium assets and are looking to attack their pitching staff via as much depth as they can; truly, anything can happen. When McClanahan was selected with the 31st overall pick in the 2018 draft, 11 pitchers were taken ahead of him, including one (Casey Mize) with the top pick in the draft. Now, he hasn’t only solidified himself as the current best player in that draft, but potentially the best pitcher in all of baseball as well.
At the end of the day, here’s what really matters: Shane McClanahan is fantastic. Every day he pitches is an absolute treat, and honestly could be worthy of a national holiday if he keeps this up. He may not be a “conventional” pitcher, but he’s arguably a trailblazer that can help continue to change the way we evaluate pitchers, leading to more attention for some players that previously wouldn’t have received it. Ultimately, any new information that improves both our analysis and our enjoyment of the greatest game alive is always a good thing; we should be grateful for the change in perspective that McClanahan has provided. That being said, if we see more pitchers follow in his footsteps, it certainly isn’t going to be a fun time for opposing hitters.
Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)