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This elite reliever flies under radar

@AndrewSimonMLB
March 6, 2019

José Leclerc drew some notice on Wednesday morning when news broke that the Rangers had agreed to a contract extension with their closer. The four-year, $14.75 million deal will run through what would have been the 25-year-old’s final season of arbitration eligibility and also includes a pair of club options

José Leclerc drew some notice on Wednesday morning when news broke that the Rangers had agreed to a contract extension with their closer. The four-year, $14.75 million deal will run through what would have been the 25-year-old’s final season of arbitration eligibility and also includes a pair of club options that could delay his free agency.

It was a rare moment in the spotlight for Leclerc, who may be the best relief pitcher in Major League Baseball that you don’t know much about.

So let’s fix that and dive into why Texas so clearly values a pitcher it signed out of the Dominican Republic way back in 2010, and who has overcome so much to succeed in the big leagues.

The basics
Leclerc first appeared in the Majors in July 2016 and followed a 12-game debut by spending most of ‘17 in Texas. While he showed promise in that first season-plus, it wasn’t until last year that he truly broke out into one of the game’s top bullpen arms.

Among all pitchers who threw at least 40 innings in 2018, Leclerc ranked:

-- First in opponent BA (.126)
-- First in opponent SLG (.194)
-- Third in ERA (1.56)
-- Fourth in FIP (1.90)
-- Fifth in WHIP (0.85)
-- Eighth in strikeout rate (38.1 percent)

If there was a weakness, it was Leclerc’s 25 walks over 57 2/3 innings, but his 11.2 percent walk rate still represented a massive drop from his 19.9 percent rate from 2016-17. Leclerc also slashed that from 13.6 percent in the first half to 7.7 percent after the All-Star break -- below the MLB average for relievers (9.3 percent).

If Leclerc was flying completely under the radar for a 95-loss Rangers club, he at least grabbed the attention of fantasy baseball players when he inherited the closer role in August after Texas traded Keone Kela to Pittsburgh. Over the final two months, Leclerc fired 18 scoreless innings, struck out 29, allowed just 10 baserunners and converted all 12 of his save opportunities.

Spinning toward success
Leclerc threw his four-seam fastball 44 percent of the time last year and averaged 95.3 mph. That velocity is impressive, but it doesn’t stand out from the pack in an age when every bullpen features multiple flamethrowers. Of the 193 relievers who threw at least 200 four-seamers, Leclerc tied for 53rd in average velo.

In that same group, however, Leclerc’s average spin rate (2,596 rpm) ranked fourth. High fastball spin can cause batters to miss entirely or hit under the ball, causing popups or lazy fly balls. Leclerc excels in both areas:

Four-seamer whiff rate: 30.0 percent (10th of 121 relievers)
Four-seamer “hit under” rate: 52.5 percent (first of 137 relievers)

Put them away
Leclerc was pretty much untouchable when he got to two strikes, due in part to a slider he threw more than half the time in those situations.

The darting pitch accounted for nearly two-thirds of his 85 strikeouts, with opponents whiffing on 56 percent of their swings against it -- one of the best rates in MLB -- and managing just one extra-base hit.

Most strikeouts on sliders, RP, 2018
1) Edwin Diaz: 75
2) Brad Hand: 66
3) Tanner Scott: 62
4) Dellin Betances: 57
5) Jose Leclerc: 56

No good wood
Leclerc is not a ground-ball artist, but as mentioned previously, his high-spin fastball helps him induce a lot of harmless fly balls.

Statcast has a category of contact for balls that are “hit under,” a designation that yielded just a .069 batting average and .136 slugging percentage MLB-wide in 2018. Among the 436 pitchers who had at least 100 balls put in play against them, only Tyler Clippard generated a higher “hit under” rate than Leclerc (43.6 percent).

Avoiding the launch angle sweet spot is one piece of the puzzle, and avoiding solid contact is another. Leclerc was elite in that category as well.

Best single-season hard-hit rate allowed, 2015-18
Min. 100 batted balls
1) Alex Reyes (2016): 14.9 percent
2) Koji Uehara (2015): 19.2 percent
3) Sean Doolittle (2017): 19.2 percent
4) Jerry Blevins (2017): 19.2 percent
5) Jose Leclerc (2018): 20.0 percent
Hard-hit rate: Percentage of batted balls with 95+ mph exit velocity

Great expectations
To sum things up, Leclerc does just about everything a pitcher needs to do to have success, with the possible exception of limiting walks.

In 2018, he missed bats more often than anyone and racked up loads of strikeouts. And when opponents did make contact, it was nearly always weak and rarely the sort likely to leave the ballpark.

Statcast has a metric called expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) that combines all of these elements -- strikeouts, walks and quality of contact -- to provide a look at how a pitcher should have performed independent of factors such as park effects and defense. All MLB relievers combined to allow an xwOBA of .305 last season

Lowest xwOBA allowed, RP, 2018
Min. 150 batters faced (223 RP)
1) Sean Doolittle: .202
2) Jose Leclerc: .210
3) Edwin Diaz: .212
4) Will Smith: .222
5) Josh Hader: .229

Doolittle has made a pair of All-Star teams and has a prominent social media presence. Diaz saved 57 games last year, then was a major piece in one of the offseason’s biggest trades. Hader became a star as the Brewers’ relief ace last year, dominating in the playoffs.

By comparison, Leclerc remains under the radar. But if he can maintain the array of skills he showed last year, he won’t stay that way for long.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.