With the 2022 regular season over, it is that time for us to go back and take a look at the players who appeared for the Texas Rangers this season.
Today, we look at reliever Jose Leclerc.
Something you’ve heard me say time and again is that, when he is right, Jose Leclerc is an elite late inning reliever.
He was right in 2018, one of the few things that went right that year. That was the season when he put up a 1.56 ERA in 59 appearances with a 1.83 xERA, allowed a miniscule rate of home runs on fly balls, got an insane amount of infield pop ups, and put up a 2.6 bWAR and fWAR. He didn’t take over the closer role until the second half of the year, so he only had 14 saves, and the team was so bad he seemed to fly under the radar. But he was legitimately great, and there was reason to see him as a guy who would be an All Star caliber late inning guy going forward.
Things went a little sideways the next season, though. He had some command issues. His home run rate jumped. His xERA was still solid, at 2.93, and he put up a 1.4 fWAR and a 1.5 bWAR in 2019. But his ERA was 4.33 on the year, he lost his closer job after allowing some costly home runs, and Rangers fans quickly lost faith in him.
2020, the COVID year, he missed most of due to the same torn shoulder muscle that ended Corey Kluber’s 2020 campaign. He was then diagnosed with a torn UCL in early 2021 and underwent Tommy John surgery, which mean he basically didn’t pitch for two and a half years, with his disappointing 2019 campaign being what everyone remembered.
Leclerc returned to the big leagues in mid-June of 2022 and promptly allowed three runs in an inning of work. He was used only twice more in June, throwing a shutout inning, and then allowed two runs two days later in an inning of work.
The inevitable cries of “he sucks”, “he’s broken”, “DFA his ass” went up. The guy people had kind of stopped trusting even before he got hurt appeared to be worse than ever. Folks were ready to move on from him, started counting the days until Jonathan Hernandez returned.
Quietly, though, without anyone seeming to notice, Leclerc got things straightened out after that. Not just straightened out — Leclerc was dominant. From the start of July until the end of the year, Leclerc had a 2.01 ERA in 44.2 IP over 36 outings, striking out 52 of 182 batters faced. The command wasn’t always great — he walked 20 batters and hit three more — but he was missing bats and eliciting weak contact.
Leclerc is an unusual pitcher, particularly for a reliever. He’s a four pitch pitcher, for one thing. In 2022 he threw his four seamer and his slider each roughly 35% of the time, threw his changeup 22% of the time, and mixed in a cutter as well.
He’s a high-spin rate guy — Statcast has him in the 100th percentile in four seamer spin rate. 446 pitchers threw at least 500 pitches in the majors in 2022, and of those 446 pitchers, the median spin rate on their four seamers was 2264 RPM. Leclerc was at 2639 RPM — trailing only Alex Diaz, Jason Adam, and Ryan Helsley. Only six pitchers were above 2600 RPM, and only 23 above 2500 RPM. Leclerc’s four seamer has truly elite spin.
On the other end of the spectrum, per Statcast, Leclerc is in the 1st percentile in extension — the measurement of how close to the plate he releases the ball. Leclerc is not tall — he’s listed at 6’ even — which, combined with the lack of extension, results in a relatively flat plane for his four seamer, which has strong rising action due to the high spin rate.
His four seamer is not his money pitch, though — he allowed a whopping .411 .452 wOBA on it in 2022, with a .411 xwOBA. It is his slider and his changeup that are his out pitches. He had a .190 wOBA and .170 xwOBA on the slider, and a .142 wOBA and a .189 xwOBA on “The Thing,” as his changeup is known as. He commanded both of those pitches quite well in 2022, with the heat maps showing he consistently located his slider down and glove side, and the change down and arm side, either in the zone or just far enough outside of it to get batters to chase.
Leclerc’s issue with the four seamer is not that it is a bad pitch — he throws it hard (78th percentile in velocity), and he does generate swings and misses with it, recording a 28.7% whiff rate in 2022 with it. Leclerc also generates a lot of popups with the four seamer. When he locates it well, batters swing under the pitch, either missing it entirely or getting under it.
Which is why, when Leclerc is going well, he generates a lot of popups. In 2022, out of 409 pitchers who threw at least 40 innings, Leclerc’s 23.1% infield fly ball rate ranked first. He also ranked first in IFFB% in 2018, with an insane 28.0% IFFB%, over 4 percentage points over Will Smith, who was second that year.
Leclerc’s problem has been, however, that he can’t consistently locate his fastball. In looking at his heat map in 2022, there’s a lot of misses armside, and a lot of fastballs left out over the plate but in the middle of the zone, rather than at the top of the zone. The misses armside lead to both walks and falling behind in the count in general, making it harder to get batters to chase his slider and changeup. The misses in the zone result in balls being crushed — which is why, out of seventeen hits allowed in 2022 by Leclerc off his four seamer, four were homers and four were doubles.
Even with his shaky start and his hit-and-miss fastball, though, Leclerc still was good for a 2.83 ERA and a 3.17 xERA in 47.2 IP in 2022. That was good enough to get the Rangers to pick up his $6 million option for 2023, and one can only hope he’ll be good enough that picking up Leclerc’s $6.25 million option for 2024 will be a no-brainer.
If Leclerc can replicate his 2022 campaign in 2023, he will be a quality late inning weapon. If, having made it back from TJS, Leclerc can consistently command his fastball in 2023, the Rangers will have one of the best relievers in baseball.