The evolution of Alex Claudio as a pitcher and the evolution of his incredible changeup go hand in hand. Baseball America has documented the process well, albeit unknowingly, and the Puerto Rican native finally reached the major leagues in 2014 because of the changeup. His role is in question, however. Many see him as a lefty-only relief threat (LOOGY), but he can be much more than that.
To see fully where he is now, we need to go back to the beginning to May 2010 when Claudio was still in high school in Juncos, Puerto Rico. He attended Isabel Flores HS and received relatively minor speculative interest entering the draft. Conor Glassey of Baseball America provided the first known scouting report on the teenager at the time:
"It’s not a good year for pitching in Puerto Rico. The most complete pitcher is lefthander Alexander Claudio. He’s a string bean at 6-foot-3 and 160 pounds, but scouts see projection in his build. He has a quiet, controlled delivery and currently sits 84-85 mph, touching 87. His changeup is a decent pitch now, while his curveball is a little loopy and needs to be tightened up. If Claudio puts some meat on his bones and the added strength shows up on the mound, he could have a chance." - Baseball America Puerto Rico State Report
Based on that report, I would have high expectations that Claudio would fill out his large frame and start to pitch in the lower 90s. The Rangers must have believed that as well and took a chance on the southpaw in the 27th round of the 2010 draft. A pitcher coming out of high school with a solid delivery, three close to average if not better pitches, and control to boot would be a steal at that point in the draft. Either way, anyone who makes the major leagues from the 27th should be considered some sort of success. In fact, the last two players to reach the majors from the 27th round were Elih Villanueva (drafted in 2008 and briefly skimmed the surface of the league for a mere three innings in 2011) and Ryan Cook (2008).
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Wanting to give Claudio a bit of a challenge, they tossed the 18 year old into the Arizona League and let things play out. He performed about as would be expected, surrendering 19 hits and 11 runs in 15 innings. Fortunately, that was just his first taste at professional baseball. The young lefthander had much more to give. In this post-draft video, you can see how Claudio was still throwing overhand.
From here, scouting reports began to disappear, and Claudio was largely forgotten. A 27th round pick with an exponentially slim chance of reaching the majors wasn't someone scouts focused on. 2011 was spent mostly back in Arizona, and Claudio emerged with vastly improved results. Over 25.1 innings, he struck out 29 batters, walked 9, and gave up only 20 hits. 2012 was more of the same back in the Arizona League for the third year in a row. His results really began to stand out, however, and Claudio attracted slight attention. He managed a 10.8 strikeout to walk ratio over 45.1 innings with his improving repertoire. Sometime over this period, he altered his delivery and began to throw sidearm.
Claudio broke out (in the best sense that a reliever can) in 2013, racing up the organizational ladder and splitting time between Low A Hickory and AA Frisco. He achieved career highs in innings and almost every sabermetric category. Claudio allowed 5.7 hits per 9 innings as a 21 year old between those two levels. His theme of excellent command and control continued, walking 18 and striking out 91 over 78.1 innings. By the end of the season, he was on most everyone's radar to at least some extent. On January 29th, 2014, Ben Badler of Baseball America had this to say about Claudio:
"He’s an unconventional guy with an extremely skinny frame, to the point where he looks like a lot of the lanky 16-year-old pitchers teams sign out of Latin America. When the Rangers drafted him, the thought was that the body would fill out and the velocity would come on, which hasn’t happened, but he’s dropped his arm slot down and developed an incredible changeup to become a very intriguing relief prospect. It’s a mid-80s fastball, but he’ll throw sidearm and even deviate his arm angle from there, has a lot of deception with his arms and legs flying at the hitter, then drops in a high-60s changeup with good arm speed and tremendous separation from his fastball, which makes his heater play up a little bit and gets guys caught way out front when he drops that on hitters. He can’t afford to make any mistakes with his fastball, but he’s a very sneaky pitcher with a chance to be a solid reliever." - Texas Rangers Top 10 Prospects Chat
At this point, it was clear Claudio wasn't bulking up. The 6' 3" lefty still weighed close to 160 lb., and by baseball standards, was still a "string bean". His radical change in delivery helped his deceptiveness play up, and as a result gave batters a hard time in distinguishing his changeup from his fastball. In that sense, Claudio slightly reminds me of Pat Neshek, but more on him later.
Now that 2014 has come and gone, where has Claudio pitched? His year began in High A+ Myrtle Beach, where he proved that he was way beyond what the batters could handle in 49.1 innings. His subsequent promotion to AA was a strange one. The Rangers began to use Claudio as a starter, whereas he rarely handled more than three innings at a time in previous years. He succeeded, but the team saw diminished results from the pitcher. As a starter, Claudio's strikeout rate fell from 9.6 K/9 to 7.0 K/9. Additionally, opponents saw their OPS rise from .526 to .644. The experiment ended after a couple starts when Claudio was promoted to AAA Round Rock, where he spent only two games before his next promotion to the Rangers major league squad.
Claudio pitched 12.1 major league innings during his stint, but not too much weight should be placed in these innings given their small sample size and the fact that they were the tail end of the most innings he's ever handled in a single season. We can still look for some promising aspects in his work and analyze from there. First of all, take a look at this amazing GIF of Claudio's changeup (provided by Carson Cistulli). All Kevin Kiermaier can do is watch as the ball curves into the catcher's mitt. The baseball has a great parachuting motion that descends into the strike zone, making it an effective out pitch.
Not only did Claudio annihilate left-handed batters to the tune of a .194 batting average and .452 OPS, he also performed almost equally as well versus righties. They batted better (.630 OPS) but still quite poorly considering Claudio's age relative to the league. Given all his oddities, I'm not sure there has ever been quite a direct comparison for Claudio; however, I believe I can piece together two different pitchers to form something that would resemble him reasonably well.
His pitch repertoire belongs to Pat Neshek - the sinker, slider, and changeup are all thrown by the Astros' righthander with relatively close ratios to those of Claudio. He even has the same sidearm delivery (albeit from the right side) that lends itself nicely towards deception. Neshek also has the noticeable difference in sinker/changeup speeds: 20.2 mph because of a 90.3mph sinker and 70.1mph changeup. Claudio exhibits the same kind of velocity difference in his pitches. With that kind of separation in velocities, batters are thoroughly baffled when they're thrown in succession. The table below lists their respective pitch ratios.
To identify the most comparable velocities, Claudio needs to be divided into two because nobody comes close to having all three roughly equivalent speeds. Neshek matches Claudio's changeup velocity well, but I believe Claudio's will regress closer to 66-68 mph once he is given a full season of pitches. The other half of the puzzle is Randy Choate. He matches Claudio's slider and sinker speed very well. Like Neshek, Choate utilizes a sidearm delivery (from the left side), and his slider sits around 74.8 mph, very close to Claudio's recorded 75.2. Finally, Choate's sinker is delivered at an average of 84.5 mph, which sits right next to Claudio at 84.2 mph. So when thinking of who Claudio is, try to imagine a cross between Neshek and Choate, all with the body of a J2 international signee.
Most recently, Claudio returned to his native Puerto Rico to pitch for Los Indios de Mayaguez, a team in the Puerto Rican National League, where he was keeping sharp over the winter. I believe he'll break Spring Training on the Rangers' roster, but if he doesn't, he'll certainly end up in AAA awaiting a call-up. Claudio can contribute in a high role given his unusual repertoire and eventually advance to a semi-setup man role. My only worry is that the initial shock of Claudio's changeup will fade with repetition. For that reason, rolling him out as a starter has certainly been crossed off the Rangers' front office plans now. Keeping teams unaware of the weapon they have is a good move.
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All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, and Baseball-Reference.
Justin Perline is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and The Wild Pitch. You can follow him on Twitter at @jperline.