Only five starting pitchers in Major League Baseball average 97 miles per hour with their fastballs. All of them throw that pitch more than half the time, except for Shane McClanahan of the Tampa Bay Rays. He has too many other options.
“It’s hard to be on time for 97, 87, 86, 82,” McClanahan said on Thursday, by his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, listing the typical velocity readings for his fastball, slider, changeup and curveball.
“It’s a tough game, man, and the hitters around the league deserve so much credit. Because what they do, it seems impossible. I look around this room in here, I see all these guys with this elite stuff, and it’s like, ‘How do you hit that?’ It makes me realize, ‘Wow, I’m glad I’m a pitcher.’”
McClanahan, 26, is one of the best. He will take the mound in the Bronx on Saturday with a 7-0 record and a 1.76 earned run average, the ace of a Rays team that has reached 30 victories faster than any team in nearly four decades.
He does it with the most varied and dominant arsenal of any pitcher in the game. In a start last month against the Chicago White Sox, McClanahan induced 32 misses among 49 swings for a 65.3 percent whiff rate, the best single-game mark since M.L.B. started tracking such data in 2008. He throws each of his four pitches at least 14 percent of the time, blending the guile of a magician with the force of a puncher.
“He’s got probably as good a four-pitch mix as you’re going to see from any starter in baseball,” said Kyle Snyder, the Rays’ pitching coach. “You take the quality repertoire he has, you mix all four pitches in the zone before two strikes to maintain unpredictability, you control the count — and then you do your best to go for the kill shot.”
Through Thursday, only one pitcher in the majors — Atlanta’s Spencer Strider — has gotten more swings and misses than McClanahan this season. The Rays knew McClanahan could be hard to hit when they drafted him 31st overall, in 2018, from the University of South Florida. They did not envision this kind of polish.
“The general thought was: big arm, throws 100, doesn’t really know where it’s going,” said Peter Bendix, the Rays’ general manager. “When you have a college pitcher who’s a first-round pick but not at the top of the draft, they’re usually throwing 89 and getting everyone out, or throwing 100 and not getting that many guys out. There was very much a lot of bullpen risk: two pitches, high walk rate, high strikeout rate.”
That was not the kind of pitcher McClanahan aspired to be. Though his favorite player was a shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr. — McClanahan, who was born in Baltimore, wears No. 18 because Ripken wore 8 — he admired pitchers like Cliff Lee and Greg Maddux, who were masters of efficiency.
“Maddux might not have been the most overwhelming pitcher in the world, but the guy knew how to pitch,” McClanahan said. “He knew how to sequence, knew how to change eye levels and speeds — inside, outside, up, down. It’s art.”
McClanahan touched 94 miles an hour as a senior at Cape Coral High School in Florida, good enough to be drafted by the Mets in the 26th round in 2015. He was open to signing, he said, but it would have taken $500,000 — far above the typical bonus for such a low round — and may not have turned out well.
At U.S.F., McClanahan struggled at times with health (Tommy John surgery), control (five walks per nine innings) and managing his emotions (“When things got fast,” Bendix said, “he just tried to throw 150 miles an hour”). By the time the Rays drafted him, he was ready for pro ball and climbed three levels in the farm system in his first full season.
After that 2019 season, McClanahan rewarded himself by buying a ticket to a division series game at Tropicana Field. It was the first postseason game he had ever attended, and the Rays held off elimination by beating Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros. The Rays had taken the tarps off the upper deck, and the crowd inspired their Class AA lefty sitting 20 rows up from first base.
“It was funny, because it was in that moment that I was like: ‘Man, I need it, I need to do this, I need to get here,’” McClanahan said. “It was surreal. The fans, the energy, it was unmatched.”
A year later, McClanahan would be part of the team. He spent the pandemic-shortened 2020 season at the team’s alternate training site in Port Charlotte, Fla., and got a surprise call to the playoff roster before he had thrown a pitch above Class AA.
He thought it was a prank — “I was like, ‘Where’s the camera?’” McClanahan said — but the Rays liked the idea of unleashing a little-known flamethrower on the playoff stage. McClanahan became the first pitcher ever to make his major league debut in the postseason, relieving in four games, including once in the World Series.
The next season — armed with a slider he picked up in one bullpen session, Snyder said — McClanahan went 10-6 and earned the Rays’ only victory in a four-game playoff loss to Boston. In 2022, he used an improved changeup to help earn a start in the All-Star Game in Los Angeles. He may do it again this July in Seattle.
“He’s determined to continue getting better,” said Zach Eflin, a veteran Rays starter. “Every single pitch that he has is tremendously nasty and extremely hard, and every outing it feels like he changes it up a little bit, so he’s always evolving. He doesn’t just go out with a stock kind of plan.”
The Rays have a knack for using advanced data to underscore old-time wisdom, like the classic advice to a wild pitcher: throw strikes, Babe Ruth’s dead. In other words, hitters are mortal, and a talented, fearless pitcher will always have the edge.
“The main thing they did was show me how many times I’ve been victimized on balls down the middle, and it’s a surprisingly low amount of times,” said Drew Rasmussen, who stymied the Yankees for seven innings on Thursday. “Hitting’s really, really hard. So if you can continue to attack the strike zone, you have a pretty good chance of success.”
McClanahan’s walk rate is up this year, but hitters are just as helpless as always, with a .194 average against him, the same as last season. That figure falls even lower in at-bats that end with a changeup.
Tucked deeper in his hand this season to reduce spin and drop like a splitter, the pitch has been a revelation. Hitters swing and miss at more than half of McClanahan’s changeups, according to Statcast, and their average against it is .140. He throws it about a quarter of the time — enough to be effective and reliable, but not enough to be familiar, just as he does with the fastball, slider and curve.
“Any given night, something might not feel like it’s there,” McClanahan said. “It just comes back to being able to trust it. Even if you don’t feel like you have it, just continue to throw it. Trust the grip, trust the movement pattern of it and trust the guys behind you.”
In that way, McClanahan may be the best example of the essence of the Rays: trust the coaches, trust the data, trust yourself. In that spirit of collaboration, McClanahan — who cannot be a free agent until after the 2027 season — would like to stick around a while.
“I love the guys around me, I love my organization, and I love Tampa,” he said. “I mean, how lucky I am to be able to pitch in front of my friends and family and to be in a place that’s home for me? I hope I get to do it for a long time.”