PORT CHARLOTTE — When the Rays converted hard-throwing left-hander Jake McGee to a reliever three years ago, they knew he could eventually become a late-inning weapon.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound former starter boasted a rising, mid to high 90s fastball, as well as a slow heartbeat that helped him command any moment.
But few could have foreseen how fast McGee, 26, would grow into his new role, as he put together one of the best years by a reliever in 2012, his first full big-league season.
His 1.95 ERA ranked third among American League relievers, and his .213 on-base percentage against was the best, even topping All-Star closer Fernando Rodney (.219). McGee held right-handed hitters to an .098 average, the lowest by a left-handed pitcher dating to 1974.
"He was unbelievably good," manager Joe Maddon said. "I mean, this guy nailed righties, very good against lefties, strike-thrower, doesn't walk people, calm. He did all those things.
"We thought he'd be good, but that was over-the-top good."
McGee said it was an accumulation of comfort, confidence and command. And though he may have exceeded expectations, pitching coach Jim Hickey believes that type of special season is sustainable.
"I think he's the kind of guy that can do that for a number of years," Hickey said. "And I also think he's a guy that can evolve into a later-inning, higher-leverage type of pitcher as well, whether that means the eighth inning, or whether that means the ninth inning, I think he's capable of both.
"He's capable physically, he's capable mentally and capable internally."
McGee said it took time to get a feel for the right routine as a reliever, having been a starter his entire life. He honed his mechanics, allowing him to average 95.7 mph, second to only the Reds' Aroldis Chapman among lefty relievers. He also narrowed his focus, no longer letting one outing, good or bad, impact another.
But, mainly, it was due to him believing in his best pitch, his fastball, having conviction to throw it and have command of it once it left his hand.
"I feel comfortable," McGee said. "I can just let it go and know where it's going, and have confidence in any situation, whether it's first and second or bases loaded, it doesn't matter who is hitting. I know, if I make my pitch, I can get a lot of guys out."
Said Hickey: "With that fastball, he's got that riding life on it that it's almost an impossible pitch for guys to catch up to."
That's how McGee got a lot of his 73 strikeouts (with just 11 walks) over 551/3 innings. His key in improving against righties, who hit .400 against him in 2011, was throwing quality strikes on both sides of the plate, with his cutter running in on their hands. And he got better as the season wore on, posting an 0.86 ERA in his final 23 appearances and retiring 22 consecutive batters from Aug. 28 to Sept. 15.
"I was in the zone," McGee said.
McGee boasts a developing slider, which he plans on using more, and a changeup he's experimenting with. His velocity is down in camp partly because he's working on those pitches, and also because he builds up toward later in spring, not wanting to "waste all my bullets."
McGee will need them this season, when he'll likely pitch in the seventh/eighth innings, helping veteran setup man Joel Peralta get the ball to Rodney.
"I think he's going to be way better," Peralta said. "The guy throws hard, he can pitch in any situation on this bullpen — anytime, any day."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]