Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/14/12

Rays reliever Jake McGee has, at this writing, struck out seven consecutive batters. McGee has not, as I was led to believe by a certain other distinguished FanGraphs author, struck out nine consecutive batters. This fact was uncovered embarrassingly late in the research and article-development process. A streak of seven is less impressive and less unlikely than a streak of nine. But a streak of seven is still impressive, and still unlikely, and of course, McGee’s streak of seven is still alive, pending the next plate appearance. So McGee’s streak is still worth writing about. Consider for reference that Aaron Cook registered seven strikeouts through his first ten starts, spanning 237 batters. McGee has done that against 230 fewer batters.

Tampa Bay has a critical series coming up against New York, but they’re coming off a critical series against Baltimore, a critical series in which they got swept. Their Cool Standings playoff odds dropped from about 61 percent to about 27 percent, as the Rays went from looking like favorites to looking like underdogs. They’re left now to lick their wounds and try to bounce back against the Yankees, but one Ray who has nothing to feel bad about is McGee, who did the best against the Orioles that he possibly could have.

In fairness, McGee didn’t pitch in the first game of the three-game series, which the Rays lost 9-2. He pitched in the second and again in the third, facing four batters in the former and three batters in the latter. A log of those plate appearances:

I suppose, if McGee had truly been perfect, he would’ve racked up these seven strikeouts on 21 pitches, instead of 34 pitches. He threw 13 pitches more than were necessary, but now we’re stretching the definition of “perfect”. Actually, no, that isn’t true, perfection is perfection and true perfection is essentially unachievable. But we’re stretching our standards of perfection as we try to apply it to baseball. McGee faced seven guys and they all struck out. Perfect.

One of those guys was Mark Reynolds, sure. One of those guys, twice, was Chris Davis. McGee didn’t plow through a bunch of Marco Scutaros, but if you’re interested in very simple math, let’s take McGee’s 2012 strikeout rate — 34.8 percent — as an accurate measure of his strikeout probability. The odds of seven consecutive strikeouts, then, would be about six-hundredths of one percent. Once per 1,618 trials, basically.

The all-time record for consecutive strikeouts, as far as I can tell, is ten. Tom Seaver did it in one game, and Eric Gagne did it over a few games. McGee still has a chance to get there, since his streak is active, although his odds of three more consecutive strikeouts are about four percent or so. He doesn’t even yet have the Rays’ franchise record, since Joaquin Benoit struck out nine consecutive batters in May 2010. Benoit’s streak ended when he walked Kevin Youkilis on four pitches. Now that’s a fact you know.

So how did McGee manage to do what he did against the Orioles? Fastballs. McGee threw 34 pitches, and one of those pitches was a non-fastball. It was a slider, and it is embedded below:

Nothing particularly remarkable about that slider, although it did serve its purpose. Everything else was heat, and McGee didn’t even have to rely on Jose Molina‘s pitch-framing. Here’s the one borderline strike McGee was given in Baltimore:

Certainly not egregious, and Davis didn’t even complain. McGee wasn’t getting calls in his favor; he was getting swings in his favor. We will now watch all seven strikeout pitches, by which I mean all seven strikeout fastballs, just for fun, because it’s Friday, and Friday should be fun.

You’ll note that McGee is left-handed, and that five of those hitters were right-handed. It’s rare for an opposite-handed pitcher to be able to dominate hitters just with his heat, but McGee made it work, and he’s been making it work all season long.

Of McGee’s 34 pitches, 25 were strikes. Interestingly, he generated only seven whiffs. In his first outing, he generated three whiffs, all on the final pitches of the at-bats. In his second outing, he got rid of Lew Ford with his fourth whiff, and then he picked up three whiffs from Adam Jones. Chris Davis struck out twice against McGee, but he didn’t whiff once.

Among relievers with at least 40 innings on the season, McGee’s got the eighth-highest strikeout rate. He’s got the 37th-lowest contact rate, which is good, but not as good. McGee’s thing is that he’s a strike-thrower now. He’s thrown strikes with about 69 percent of his pitches, so he’s constantly ahead, so he’s constantly in strikeout situations. When you’re pitching ahead, you don’t need as many swings and misses to rack up the strikeouts.

Clearly, McGee has taken to his bullpen role and flourished. At present, he’s chasing history. Even if he falls short, he’ll still be one hell of a reliever. Wade Davis, too, in case you were unaware of how that’s been going. Before the 2008 season, Baseball America ranked McGee baseball’s #15 prospect, and Davis baseball’s #17 prospect. They were back-to-back in a stacked Rays system, and they looked like promising future starters. They’ve turned into promising present and future relievers, and McGee in particular has put up numbers that are just off most of the charts. By throwing fastballs almost exclusively. The best relievers can make relieving look so damned simple.

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