There was a special group of players spending their springs and summers at Lakewood Ranch Little League up until the fall of 2008. They moved across the fields as that fall began and started their freshman years at Lakewood Ranch High School. Most of them had played together since they were young and found themselves playing long into the summer during all-star games or travel tournaments.
Their leader was a scrawny pitcher and shortstop. He was maybe 5 feet, 7 inches and 110 pounds, as former Lakewood Ranch head coach Mike Mullen remembers him, but from that frame he somehow uncoiled fastballs which would get up near 80 mph or launch laser line drives all over the field.
“Seth was a small kid, but he was a gamer,” Mullen said. “He was always the No. 3 hitter whether he was 9 years old or whether he was 19 years old. ... I could have put him anywhere in the field and he would’ve been one of the best players we had at this position.”
By the time McGarry left the Mustangs to spend three years at Florida Atlantic, some of the recruiting profiles were listing him at 6 feet, 1 inch and he was up at 90 mph. They won’t lie about size in pro ball, though. He’s listed at an even 6 feet and is an outlier in the Pirates system. He’s not necessarily what scouts would call, “projectable.” The 97-mph fastballs he uncoils out of his relatively small frame don’t always make sense. People who analyze college baseball, the minors and the MLB draft for a living viewed McGarry as the sort of pitcher who was already near his ceiling, able to potentially make his way to the Majors in a few years.
It’s now been more than two years since McGarry was taken by Pittsburgh during the eighth round of the 2015 MLB draft and after a brief dalliance as a starting pitcher during his first season in the organization McGarry has settled in as one of the best relief pitchers in the Florida State League. The Bradenton native was one of 10 All-Stars for the FSL’s Bradenton Marauders this season. His 1.15 ERA entering Tuesday’s games was second best among FSL players who have thrown at least 30 innings this season. His nine saves are second most despite sharing closer duties with Daniel Zamora. His WHIP of 0.750 is the best in the league.
He's athletic and when pitchers grow up to play in professional baseball, they don't get to hit, they don't play shortstop, but I'm telling you right now, I think Seth could play on that Marauders team at shortstop or second base.
Mike Mullen, former Lakewood Ranch High School head coach
At 23, McGarry is right at about the average age for FSL pitchers and suddenly seems to be back on the sort of fast track to progress some expected out of him when he was drafted out of FAU. It would take something of a second-half collapse to push him anywhere near the 3.79 ERA he posted last summer with Class A West Virginia during his first season back in the bullpen following an underwhelming experiment as a starter.
“They asked me where I saw myself in the big leagues and I said, ‘The ’pen,’” McGarry said. “It was kind of — I wouldn’t say a mutual decision because they have the last say, but we were on the same page.”
McGarry’s first stop after being drafted by the Pirates was Bradenton, where he suited up for a handful of starts with the Gulf Coast League Pirates. At the time, Pittsburgh hoped he could ride that high-90s fastball to a starting role in the major leagues. The Pirates prefer to let their top prospects loose as starters before settling for shoving them off to the bullpen and as a player taken during the first 10 rounds, McGarry was intriguing enough to get that sort of treatment.
0.750Seth McGarry’s WHIP entering Tuesday night, the best in the Florida State League this season among pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings.
But it was hard for McGarry to not look around and realize he was sort of out of place as a pitcher barely scraping 6 feet. Everywhere he turned at Pirate City there was a young 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 rookie.
“It’s a little different getting to the first team and seeing all the guys,” McGarry said.
His foray into starting only lasted nine games with Class A short-season West Virginia with a pedestrian 4.62 ERA. When he met with Pittsburgh during his annual entry meeting before spring training, both McGarry and the organization decided it would be best for him to go back to the bullpen, where he thrived for two seasons with the Owls.
As starters, they really want us to develop our fastball command and I feel like that’s helped me a lot in the bullpen because a lot of times guys will kind of fall in love with their offspeed stuff, but I’ve kind of stuck with what I believe is my best pitch.
Seth McGarry, Marauders relief pitcher
His second season back in the bullpen has made him, once again, into one of the most dominant relievers at his level. He’s pound fastball almost exclusively while occasionally working in a sinker or curveball. Pittsburgh teaches its starting pitchers to lean heavily on their best pitches, typically a fastball, and McGarry has carried this philosophy over to the bullpen where his speed and deception have made him basically unhittable. He’s always been a “max-effort” pitcher and by throwing fewer pitches he’s able to put more into each throw.
“He might be 5-11, maybe give him 6-foot,” Mullen said. “He throws like he's 6-6.”
And his breakthrough has come at home, where his mother can watch him pitch a few times a week, and old coaches can swing by with the prayer that a save situation might arise and McGarry will come to close out a win for the Pirates’ Class A Advanced affiliate. He gets to live at home with his girlfriend, and nearby to his mother and brother. Each morning before heading to the ballpark, he’ll find a spot along the water to fish for an hour or two.
He fits the profile, though, of a pitcher who could be with Double A Altoona by the end of this summer. Size has never been a significant knock on McGarry and this season he’s showcased the talent that caused Pittsburgh to look at him as an exception.
This year, none of the flaws have mattered.
“There's not much projectability. I'm not getting bigger,” McGarry said. “What they see is what they get."