If you were to ask baseball fans to name some of the best relievers in baseball, you would probably get a lot of the same answers: Blake Treinen, Josh Hader, Edwin Díaz, Aroldis Chapman, to name a few. But one name has slipped under the radar, likely because he played on the Texas Rangers, one of the worst teams in baseball last season.
José Leclerc was one of the best relievers in baseball last year. He had a 2.50 RA9 in hitter-friendly Globe Life Park, and he struck out 38.1 percent of hitters faced. What’s more, he gave up only one home run all year! That did come with a 2.0 percent HR/FB ratio, so regression is likely coming, especially when considering that he is a flyball pitcher.
The knock on Leclerc is his control. He walked 11.2 percent of batters faced last year, and believe it or not, that was a huge improvement over the previous year. He had pitched 60 2⁄3 innings over the previous two seasons, and had a walk rate of nearly 20 percent! These serious control issues are what landed the former starter in the bullpen. He has trouble repeating his mechanics and sometimes likes to overthrow, all of which are a great recipe for missing your spots.
Leclerc is primarily a two-pitch pitcher. He uses his fourseamer over 40 percent of the time, and he can vary his speeds on it from 92-98 MPH. His second pitch, however, is more difficult to classify. Brooks Baseball calls it as a splitter that he uses 30 percent of the time. Pitcher List classifies it as a slider that he throws about 43 percent of the time. Neither of these classifications are necessarily wrong. FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski described the pitch as a “chlidder” that is a “changeup-splitter-slider chimera that breaks pitch-classification algorithms.” It has a wide range of velocities from 78 to 90 MPH, and it is likely that the speed affects which one of those three pitch types it most resembles.
If you think that such a pitch is devastating to hitters, well, you’re right. Hitters swing and miss at about one out of every four times against this pitch. Combined with Leclerc’s fastball that can reach speeds of up to 98 MPH, and you can see why he has been so effective. Overall, his 17.2 percent whiff rate was tied with Craig Kimbrel for the fifth-best in baseball. When hitters do put one of his pitches in play, they tend not square it up. His 26.4 percent soft-hit rate was one of the best last year. Even with that great ability to generate soft contact, his career .221 BABIP is unsustainable, so expect to see some regression to the mean.
Speaking of Kimbrel, the similarities are striking. Besides the fact that they both had the same exact whiff rate last year, their strikeout rates were nearly the same, and they both have serious control issues. Even Kimbrel’s 2.74 RA9 was not much higher than Leclerc’s 2.50 RA9.
The Rangers are unlikely to be competitive in 2019, so if Leclerc continues to excel, he could become trade bait. However, his walk rate could temper possible returns for him, because poor walk rates can be especially problematic for closers. Back to Kimbrel for a moment, ask Red Sox fans what they thought of him during the playoffs. The rare times that Leclerc gave up runs, walks were usually involved. His worst outing involved giving up three walks in two-thirds of an inning, which led to four runs being scored.
There is hope for Leclerc, though. His walk rate in the second half of the season was just 7.7 percent. Not only is that a tremendous improvement, it was below the league average of 8.5 percent! Obviously small sample size caveats apply, but if he can drop his walk rate to even nine percent, he could go from one of the best relievers in baseball to something quite special.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.