The Texas Rangers had a miniature fire sale at the deadline, dealing veteran ace Cole Hamels, whom they acquired three deadlines ago for a postseason run, to the Chicago Cubs as well as young closer Keone Kela to the Pittsburgh Pirates. They also dealt high octane lefty reliever Jake Diekman to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Hamels and Diekman trades make perfect sense given the stages of their careers, especially if the Rangers are looking to re-tool before making another postseason run. To me, though, if the Rangers were willing to deal Kela who was under team control until 2022, landing what is now their seventh best prospect in pitcher Taylor Hearn, they likely were also shopping another up-and-coming reliever in Jose Leclerc, but just didn’t receive the right offer.
That will likely pay big dividends, whether they choose to trade him during the offseason to a no-doubt contender or hang onto him. He’s quickly coming into his own and has rapidly risen to being the next great closer. First off, he’s been excellent at run prevention, the 12th best ERA- among relievers at 47 and the seventh best FIP- at 50. His xFIP has been elevated at 3.34 but in the second half he’s dropped it to 2.92. His strikeout rate of 36.1 percent, good for 11th best among relievers, is incredible considering he’s only pitch a few innings over 100 at the major league level. The walk rate of 11.6 percent this season is a little higher than you’d want but he’s dropped it to 7.8 percent the last two months.
Another eye popping stat is his .140 batting average against- better than Edwin Diaz and only 4 points higher than Aroldis Chapman. The most surprising part about Leclerc’s batting average is he dropped it from .146 last season to .140 this season, while his BABIP increased by 26 points. All of these above averages are a result of having one of the best arsenals among relievers.
While his fastball doesn’t regularly reach the high 90’s, surpassing 97 miles per hour on just 17 of the 347 fastballs he’s thrown, he’s still sitting at 95 miles per hour between his four-seam and two-seam fastball. What he lacks in velocity he makes up for movement and devastation. His secondary pitches are really something else. He features a curveball around five percent of the time, a changeup four percent and in-between pitch that’s often labeled a splitter but moves like a slider 42.5 percent of the time. I’ll call the splitter/slider a slider because of how it moves and behaves.
The key for Leclerc’s arsenal is how well the pitches work off of each other. The curveball breaks sharply down at six inches with three inches of glove-side run. The slider has about 1.5 inches of vertical break, with five inches of glove side run. The changeup is a perfect mix of the slider and curve, six inches of vertical break, and seven inches of horizontal movement toward the arm side. While the curveball and changeup aren’t used very often, the fact he has both in his back pocket forces hitters to keep them in the back of their minds. Additionally, these three pitches mix perfectly with his four-seam and two-seam fastballs. The four-seamer breaks a ton vertically, over 9.5 inches, with a couple of inches of glove side run. The two-seamer breaks about five inches vertically and is the opposite of the four-seamer horizontally, with 8.4 inches of arm side run.
If someone told me I had five pitches to construct the perfect arsenal of “stuff”, I probably couldn’t come up with a more perfect mix than this. The secondary pitches work off of each other, as do the two fastballs and all five pitches combine to create a deadly combination that is among the best arsenals in the league. He has pitches he can attack both sides with the plate, and all four quadrants with ease.
His four-seam and slider are his bread and butter, throwing them 44.7 percent and 42.5 percent respectively. His slider has the highest whiff rate of any of his pitches at 23.3 percent and it’s only put into play 5.2 percent of the time. In total he’s received 42 percent of non-contact strikes which has allowed him to earn 39 of his 62 total strikeouts with the pitch, clearly his out pitch. His four-seamer has been good in results as well. A 13.1 percent whiff rate and a total of 28.1 percent non-contact strikes.
The one issue he’s had is control. He’s gotten into 45 three ball counts, or 26.2 percent of the batters he’s faced. As a result of this, his wOBA in all counts jumps from .224 to .406 when in three ball counts. The reason batters are hitting so well in three ball counts, aside from obvious pressure to throw a strike, is he’s throwing his four-seamer 62 percent of the time, so batters know exactly what to sit on. When batters know what’s coming they have a far better chance to barrel it up, which is evident by his wOBA against the four-seamer in three ball counts of .443 versus .338 wOBA against his other four pitches. Mixing in his two-seamer and changeup in three ball counts should help him have better success. 15 of his 20 total walks have come off the four-seamer so clearly he’s not able to locate it. The pitch chart below shows how wild he’s been with the four-seamer in three ball counts.
Right now, the three ball counts and the issues with the four-seamer in those counts are really the only glaring issue with an already above average reliever. You could even say he’s elite but we need to see him continue this success in order to solidify that statement. Regardless, Leclerc has made a huge statement, and if the Rangers decide to trade him this coming off season that should land them quit a haul.