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Change has done Rays’ Shane McClanahan well

A slight change to the grip of his change-up has given the lefty a much-improved additional option in his arsenal.
A small adjustment to the grip of his change-up has made a big difference for Rays starter Shane McClanahan.
A small adjustment to the grip of his change-up has made a big difference for Rays starter Shane McClanahan. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 28

ST. PETERSBURG — Kyle Snyder and Shane McClanahan were talking shop one day after spring training finally started in March, as the pitching coach and protégé often do.

McClanahan had a pretty good rookie season in 2021, coming up in late April, going 10-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 25 starts (with the Rays winning 15 of the games), striking out 27.3 percent of the batters he faced and allowing a .252 average and .697 OPS.

He did most of his dirty work with a high-octane fastball and dastardly slider, and an occasional curve.

While pleased, Snyder felt McClanahan could do even better, especially if he broadened his pitch mix. They resumed a conversation this spring that they had last season (but McClanahan was hesitant to implement at the time) about changing his change-up.

A small adjustment has made a big difference.

“The change-up has definitely gotten a lot better,” Snyder said. “He’s added probably 5 inches of vertical drop on average to that pitch. He’s increased the usage with it.

“And he’s really upped his unpredictability, because he’s really thrown four pitches about evenly. Throwing, obviously, quite a few more breaking pitches once he gets to two strikes, just given the quality of those. But just overall, it’s been tremendous to watch just him evolve through the early portions of the year.”

The 25-year-old lefty from USF is off to an even better start, heading into Sunday’s game against the Yankees with a 4-2 record and 2.06 ERA in nine outings (with the Rays winning six). He has struck out 37.4 percent of batters while allowing a .184 average and .535 OPS.

Having the additional confidence to throw the change-up more frequently — now nearly 20 percent of the time — has been a big part of McClanahan’s improvement.

“That was a focus point last year, except it’s just kind of hard to make midseason adjustments the way you want to,” he said. “I went into this (past) offseason knowing that I had a lot of things to work on and improve upon.

“I got back with Snyder after the lockout, and we went from there. We made some adjustments, and it’s been having success so far.”

The adjustment Snyder suggested — “He saw something, he said, ‘Hey, try this,’ and it ended up working,” McClanahan said — was relatively minor.

Rays starter Shane McClanahan will enter Sunday's game against the Yankees with a 4-2 record and 2.06 ERA in nine outings. Tampa Bay has won six of them.
Rays starter Shane McClanahan will enter Sunday's game against the Yankees with a 4-2 record and 2.06 ERA in nine outings. Tampa Bay has won six of them. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

McClanahan widened his grip, putting his middle finger on one seam and his index finger across the arc of the seams, making the ball spin slower and more horizontally and thus more subject to gravity.

“He’s killed a little bit more spin,” Snyder said, “which reflects a little bit in the drop.”

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What makes that all matter is the way McClanahan delivers the pitch, making it look like his fastball, which tops out in triple digits and averages 97.4 mph, but throwing it roughly 10 mph slower, thus often handcuffing hitters. In 2021, hitters had a .393 average against his change-up; this year, .100.

“Last year when we saw him, he didn’t execute his pitches consistently all the time out of the same tunnel, out of the same look,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said the morning after McClanahan’s seven-inning, one-run outing against them.

“When he does now, he’s got a whole new dimension to him. The energy on the mound, his look, the aggressiveness, you kind of gear up for the fastball. So anything that he does to spin the ball, like his change-up, is very key. It looks more like his fastball now. It goes off the same arm path, same plane, significantly slower than his high-end fastball.”

Added Hinch, “He’s going to develop into a problem.”

With the quantity of high-end pitch options and the quality with which he throws them, McClanahan, in his first full major-league season, is putting himself in a small — and impressive — group.

He still throws his fastball most of the time, 38.4 percent, per fangraphs.com, down a couple percentage points from last year. But by cutting his slider usage significantly (34.9 to 16.5 percent) and increasing use of his curve (16.2 to 25.4 percent) and — most importantly — the change-up (8 to 19.7), he has created that near-equal four-pitch mix that helps set him apart.

“How many lefties are there in the league that throw 100 miles an hour with four-plus pitches that they can command?” Snyder asked, knowing the answer is not many.

Or, as centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said, one: “Shane McClanahan, best in the league. Dude is incredible.”

Snyder said McClanahan, who also has been working deeper into games this year, deserves all the credit.

“It’s been incredible to see how quickly it’s all evolved,” Snyder said. “It’s a testament to him. He’s super talented, he’s put in the work, he’s motivated. At the end of last season, he busted his butt all offseason, he came in in really good shape.”

McClanahan’s between-starts interviews tend to sound repetitive, but he is consistent in his message, determined to put his team in a position to win and driven to continually get better.

“I think once you get complacent, that’s when mistakes happen,” McClanahan said. “I think it’s important that you keep working hard and keep trying to improve upon your game every single day.”

At times, change can be good. And change-ups.

• • •

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