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Alex Claudio gets a ton of soft contact

The lefty junkballer is an intriguing part of the Rangers bullpen.

MLB: ALDS-Texas Rangers at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

In the last couple of years, the introduction of Statcast has provided baseball fans with new data to play with. Making sense of new metrics such as exit velocity, launch angles and barrels is like a dream come true. Although this provides us with a new dimension to the game, sometimes I find that it’s hard to make sense of some of the data that comes from it and what it means. Maybe this will take some time as we continue to gather more information over a longer period of time.

One of these metrics, which is fairly easy to make sense of, is exit velocity. Exit velocity is defined as the speed of a baseball after it is hit by a batter. This includes all batted-ball events — outs, hits and errors. On the surface, this tells us that the harder the ball is hit, the greater the likelihood that it will result in a favorable outcome for the batter. Makes sense, no?

With that in mind, we look at Alex Claudio. In 2016, he had an 88 mph average exit velocities — 65th among all pitchers with at least 140 batted ball events. Overall, he pitched 51 13 innings for the Rangers to a tune of 2.79 ERA and 2.97 FIP. These are some impressive numbers for any pitcher, let alone a side-arm junkballer with a fastball averaging 86.7 mph. His .312 BABIP was higher than the league average for relievers (.296), but based on that contact suppression, Claudio could have had a better year than he did.

That’s not the only way he stood out. Claudio posted an extremely low walk rate of 4.6 percent and home run rate of 0.9 percent. These are extremely depressed numbers. To put this in context, the league averages for relief pitchers in 2016 were 9 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively. In fact, in the last five years, Claudio’s home run rate ranks 76th out of 685 qualified relief pitchers, while the walk rate ranked 50th in the same sample.

The encouraging sign for Alex Claudio is that throughout his minor league career he’s posted decent home runs and walk rates, so this is probably a sustainable skill. While Claudio posted a much below average strikeout rate of 15.7 percent, he more than made up for it with a 62.6 percent ground ball rate, which helped him keep the ball in the yard.

In terms of pitch selection, he is primarily a sinker/slider/changeup pitcher relying on a lot of contact. This partially explains the high BABIP, along with the fact that Texas had a below-average middle infield, which makes life harder for a pitcher like Claudio. A look at his zone profile re-emphasizes the point that he tries to generate contact by keeping the ball low in the zone:

It seems pretty clear that Claudio has a pretty good idea of where his strengths are. Not only does he manages to keep the ball low in the zone, he commands his pitches quite well. Last year, according to FanGraphs’ PITCHf/x stats, he generated swings on 35.7 percent of his pitches outside the zone and 57.5 percent of his pitches in the zone. Both these numbers are better than the MLB averages (which were 30.6 percent and 63.9 percent, respectively, in 2016), suggesting excellent command and maybe some deception to his pitches.

Looking further, of all the pitchers with at least 140 batted-ball events, Claudio had sixth-lowest barrels per batted-ball event and tenth-lowest barrels per plate appearance. Mike Petriello of MLB.com has done a done a pretty good job of explaining what a barrel is, and I’ll leave its explanation to him:

A "barrel" is defined as a well-struck ball where the combination of exit velocity and launch angle generally leads to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage.

Mike also suggests in the same article that generating low barrels may be a repeatable skill, so perhaps there’s something to be said about Claudio keeping the ball low enough that it’s hard to generate the optimal launch angle that is required for a long fly ball or a home run.

I don’t have all the answers to what makes Claudio a unique pitcher, but Statcast gives us a pretty good starting point. Using that and the other evaluative criteria, we see how he can be an extremely potent, albeit underrated, member of the Texas Rangers bullpen. In fact, he could also serve as an attractive trade acquisition for teams with strong defensive infields. 2017 will tell us more — whether his 2016 success was an aberration, or if this is what we should expect from the side-armer going forward.