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Claudio overcoming nerves with confidence

Left-handed reliever thrives with slower stuff, versatility
MLB.com @Sullivan_Ranger

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rangers pitcher Alex Claudio admitted it. Apparently, he does have a mean streak in him behind that smile and easy-going disposition.

Claudio said he occasionally enjoys the reaction of opposing hitters when they are baffled by some of the slowest but most effective pitches in the American League.

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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rangers pitcher Alex Claudio admitted it. Apparently, he does have a mean streak in him behind that smile and easy-going disposition.

Claudio said he occasionally enjoys the reaction of opposing hitters when they are baffled by some of the slowest but most effective pitches in the American League.

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"I notice the hitters sometimes get upset," Claudio said. "Their body language tells me, 'How the heck did you get me out with that pitch?' But that's the game. That's part of the fun of it."

Claudio seems to be having a lot of fun lately in defying baseball's obsession with the radar gun. In a Rangers bullpen built around power arms, Claudio still seems to be their best option to pitch the ninth.

He did that at the end of last season and handled himself well. If he threw 95 mph, he would be locked into the job this season. But the Rangers haven't gone there yet.

"We had him out there," manager Jeff Banister said. "He closed out games for us last year. I think the bigger question is where his value is in the bullpen for us. The value is he's able to pitch anywhere in the bullpen. To leave him at the back end only, there are opportunities for him to come in at any time and help us win. Power arm or not, it's about winning the game."

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The Rangers could use a few more like Claudio. It's just not easy getting by in the Major Leagues with a sinking fastball that averages 86.8 mph and a changeup that was the slowest in the Majors last year. Claudio's funky left-handed delivery would also be tough to emulate.

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"Yeah, he's nasty," reliever Jake Diekman said. "There's no fear. He knows exactly who he is, he doesn't try to change anything. It might not be the sexiest way to get people out, he doesn't throw 105 mph and stuff, but he comes right after you with strikes. I don't know if a lot of other people would take his stuff and try to go get outs, I feel like that would be kind of scary to do, but he has no fear."

Well …

"I always feel a little bit nervous, but I feel that's necessary," Claudio said. "If you are not nervous, you've got problems. You have to have a little bit of nerves and anxiety. That's what makes me good."

He does have nerves. But he also has confidence, which seems to be growing with each season and has been especially noticeable this spring. For the first time in his career, Claudio has come to camp with a secure job on the team.

"I think the confidence has gone a long way for him," Banister said.

In 2014-16, Claudio had to shuttle between Triple-A Round Rock and Arlington. Last year, he was the Rangers' Pitcher of the Year.

"I know I have worked hard to get here," Claudio said. "I know it hasn't been easy, but I feel I've figured things out, I feel good and I am confident. It has been hard, but I think it's paying off."

Claudio is not doing it with smoke and mirrors. Statcast™ helps to show why he is one of the most effective relievers in the game.

Claudio's changeup, which had an average speed of 71.1 mph, is a terrific out pitch. Opponents were 18-for-111 (.162) off the changeup and he used it to get 35 of his 56 strikeouts.

Claudio's fastball may be slow, but he gets ground balls because of it. His ground ball rate of 67.6 percent was the fifth best in the league. His 76.4 percent ground ball rate off the fastball alone was the third highest.

Video: OAK@TEX: Claudio induces a grounder for the final out

"Sometimes I think I wish I could throw 95 … but it's like, stay right there," Claudio said. "I'm good right here."

At some point, it would seem AL hitters would figure all this out. That doesn't appear to be the case.

"They have seen quite a bit of him over the past three years," Banister said. "We have run him out there quite a bit and he continues to find ways to get guys out. It's hard for hitters to see the ball off him, the arm angle. He has added a little sharpness to the slider. He regulates the changeup and the fastball is tough to pick up and get barrel on it. As long as he continues to command the strike zone, he'll do OK."

T.R. Sullivan has covered the Rangers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast.

Texas Rangers, Alex Claudio