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Jose Leclerc could be the Rangers’ savior

On the one hand, he’s thrown only 10 innings this year. On the other hand, those 10 innings have defied belief.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Los Angeles Angels
You’ll want to remember this guy. Unless he’s just a fluke.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight year, the Rangers have had trouble finding a closer early in the season. In 2016, Shawn Tolleson blew four saves in his first 15 opportunities, before the team replaced him with Sam Dyson. This year, Dyson in turn has collapsed — he had a disastrous debut, and when he returned from a DL stint, Texas had yanked him from the closer role.

Despite the difficulties, the Rangers don’t lack relief pitchers. Matt Bush has held down the ninth inning admirably in Dyson’s absence; since the beginning of the 2016 season, he’s been one of the best relievers in the American League. Behind him, another hurler lies waiting, perhaps even better. The sample is small, as is usually the case with April baseball, but this 23-year-old righty has looked untouchable to start the season.

If you read BtBS, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with cFIP; it’s the metric Baseball Prospectus uses to appraise a pitcher’s all-around ability. It’s sort of like FIP, but with more context (hence the name), in the form of adjustments for specific ballparks, opponents, catchers, and the like. By this metric, these are the best pitchers in baseball:

Best pitchers by cFIP, 2017

Rank Player Innings cFIP
Rank Player Innings cFIP
1 Chris Devenski 16.2 54
2 Jose Leclerc 10.0 56
3 Craig Kimbrel 10.1 63
4 Chris Sale 37.2 64
5 Cody Allen 10.0 65
6 Noah Syndergaard 26.0 67
7 Blake Parker 10.2 70
8 Justin Wilson 10.2 71
9 Luis Severino 27.0 72
10 Andrew Miller 11.2 72
Ranking among pitchers with 10+ innings (arbitrary minimum, I know). Data via Baseball Prospectus

This list has a few surprising names on it — BtBS has already covered Chris Devenski, and I don’t even know who Blake Parker is — but the guy leading the way might be the biggest surprise of all. Where the hell did Jose Leclerc come from?

Last year, Leclerc was a middling relief prospect, who negated a 28.8 percent strikeout rate with a 14.0 percent walk rate. FanGraphs put him 18th in the Rangers system; Baseball Prospectus omitted him entirely. He was a filler arm, someone with velocity who would never be able to put it all together.

Come 2017, Leclerc has pitched 10 innings, striking out 16 of the batters he’s faced while walking one. Thanks to that, and some weak contact, he’s put up a 0.90 ERA and 0.11 FIP, placing among the major-league leaders in each. From humble beginnings, Leclerc has ascended to the ranks of the elite — and it’s not hard to see why.

For one thing, Leclerc has a deep arsenal. He can come at a hitter with any of six pitches:

Leclerc arsenal

Pitch Type Fourseam Sinker Cutter Slider Curve Change
Pitch Type Fourseam Sinker Cutter Slider Curve Change
Frequency 37.2% 11.6% 16.5% 24.8% 4.1% 5.8%
Brooks calls Leclerc’s slider a splitter, but I’m going with the FanGraphs classification, which makes more sense given the pitch’s glove-side break. Data via Brooks Baseball

We’ll start with Leclerc’s primary pitch. The four-seam fastball has a pretty nasty bite — Leclerc has averaged 96.0 mph on it, but he can ramp it up to 97, as seen here:

H/t to Chris Anders.
GIF via MLB.tv

Compared to an average right-handed reliever, Leclerc gets a little less run (-3.0 inches on average) and a lot more rise (9.7 inches) on his four-seamer. The result is a hard, straight ‘riseball’ that tends to eat up hitters, who either whiff or make weak contact.

Those two pitches in the middle of the table, though — they’re the money makers. Leclerc’s slider has gone for a swinging strike 33.3 percent of the time he’s thrown it; his cutter has a whiff rate of 50 percent even. The former ended up retiring Mike Trout after he flailed at the heater:

GIF via MLB.com

FanGraphs classifies the two as one pitch; think of it as a ‘slutter’. They aren’t too dissimilar in terms of velocity and movement:

Leclerc slider and cutter

Pitch Type Leclerc cutter MLB cutter Leclerc slider MLB slider
Pitch Type Leclerc cutter MLB cutter Leclerc slider MLB slider
Velo 86.9 89.5 83.2 85.4
HMov 2.3 1.0 3.4 2.9
VMov 4.0 5.4 2.0 1.5
MLB averages among all cutters and sliders thrown by right-handed pitchers in 2017. Data via Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus

Neither one travels faster than the average, which may work to their advantage; with a greater velocity differential between pitches, Leclerc can keep hitters guessing.

More importantly, he’s established a clear trend with his pitches (borne out in the GIFs above). The fastball is for attacking hitters, while the slider/cutter are for putting them away:

Images via Brooks Baseball

A full 50 percent of Leclerc’s sliders and cutters have been down-and-away to righties. That’s the 22nd-most in the majors among fellow right-handers.

Now, this brings us to the catch with Leclerc: He has some trouble with lefties. Thus far in 2017, he’s struck out only two of the 14 left-handed hitters he’s faced, tallying a grand total of two swinging strikes in 51 pitches to southpaws. Even if he can’t figure out lefties, though, he’ll certainly make a living against righties — they’ve struck out more than 60 percent of the times he's faced them. If matched up well, Leclerc can remain a dominant bullpen arm.

Bush looks like the de facto closer for now, even if Jeff Banister won’t refer to him as such. Leclerc and his elite cFIP will live in the eighth inning for now, mowing down all the righties he sees. The fastball/breaking ball one-two punch has made many a great reliever; Dyson lived on it for a couple of years, and now Leclerc has discovered it as well. Even if his excellence doesn’t last forever, the Rangers will enjoy whatever they can get from Leclerc.


All data as of Sunday, April 30.

Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.