The Heart of Jose Leclerc’s Early Season Struggles

Texas Rangers closer Jose Leclerc has undeniably struggled tremendously thus far this season, pitching to an atrocious 8.44 ERA (9th highest ERA out of the 173 relievers who registered at least 10 IP between March and April). He is walking over 7.5 batters per nine innings (6th highest rate), and his appalling 2.16 WHIP is the worst among all relievers.

Photo: Lone Star Ball

Leclerc’s disastrous start to the 2019 campaign (it’s worth noting that he was also awful in Spring Training) comes as a huge surprise to all. In 2018, Leclerc was one of the most dominant relievers in all of baseball (1.56 ERA, 13.27 K/9, 3.90 BB/9, 0.16 HR/9, and 2.6 fWAR), especially in the 2nd half (post all-star break)…

July 20th – September 27th (2018)

  • ERA: 0.73 (3rd lowest 2nd half ERA among the 164 relievers who pitched at least 20 innings)
  • K/9: 13.50 (8th highest)
  • BB/9: 2.55
  • WHIP: 0.65 (4th lowest)

The Rangers rewarded Leclerc for his exceptional performance with a record-breaking extension in March of 2019

Rangers reliever José Leclerc came to Spring Training … [in 2017] unsure if he was going to make the team. On … [3/6/19], the Rangers made sure their closer is going to be a big part of their future by signing him to a four-year, $14.75 million contract extension.

The deal, coming after Leclerc’s breakthrough season in 2018, includes two option years for another possible $12.25 million. It’s the largest deal for any reliever with two-plus years of service time and not eligible for arbitration.

T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com

Rangers manager “Chris Woodward told MLB Network Radio that the Rangers will use Leclerc in lower-leverage situations to ‘get him back on track’ before returning him to the closer’s role” (FanGraphs). Having already blown two save opportunities, it is clear that Leclerc needs to regroup and regain his confidence, and this seems like the best way to do it.

In this investigation, I will attempt to figure out what is at the heart of Jose Leclerc’s struggles through closely examining some further statistics and graphics.

Velocity and Spin

2018 Average fastball velocity (according to Pitch Info Pitch Velocity as found on FanGraphs): 95.7

2019: 96.5

and

2018 Average fastball spin rate (according to Baseball Savant): 2596

2019: 2655

Based on the fact that Leclerc’s avg. fastball velocity (come faster at the hitter) and spin (theoretically more rising action) have both increased, one can presumably infer that these factors are not responsible for Leclerc’s drop-off in performance.

Control

Jose Leclerc’s walk rate has shot up dramatically in 2019 (3.90 BB/9 in 2018 vs 7.59 BB/9 in 2019), which has certainly played a role in his struggles. It’s interesting, however, that he’s still throwing the ball over the strike zone at virtually the same rate this year…

2018 Zone% (according to FanGraphs): 41.1

2019: 40.7

What has truly changed is that hitters are taking a much more disciplined approach against Leclerc…

2018 O-Swing%: 31.6

2018 Z-Swing%: 67.1

2018 Swing%: 46.2

vs

2019 O-Swing%: 21.2

2019 Z-Swing%: 61.7

2019 Swing%: 37.7

Movement

Graph via Brooks Baseball

Leclerc’s two primary offerings are clearly his fourseam fastball and splitter. Here are the splits for those pitches from 2018, compared to this season…

Fastball

2018 (413 pitches): AVG – .150; HR – 1; SwStr% (according to FanGraphs) – 11.1

2019 (103 pitches): AVG – .400; HR – 1; SwStr% – 7.8

Splitter

2018 (399 pitches): AVG – .129; HR – 0; SwStr% – 23.8

2019 (92 pitches): AVG – .294; HR – 1; SwStr% – 7.6

Graph via Brooks Baseball
Graph via Brooks Baseball

The movement on his pitches is remarkably identical to that of last year.

Command

Graph via Brooks Baseball

His horizontal pitch location on his fourseam and splitter has also not changed at all from last year. Not the case with the vertical location of his pitches…

He is locating fastball higher up in the zone, but that doesn’t really explain why hitters would be doing more damage off of it though. Leclerc is also locating his splitter higher up in the zone, which is likely part of the reason why hitters have had more success against the pitch.

I’m concerned because we’re seeing swings we didn’t see last year. They’re on pretty much everything he’s throwing. We’re going to try to dig a little deep and see if what is happening is because he’s missing more to the middle of the plate, or if something else is going on.’

Rangers Manager Chris Woodward
2018
2019

In taking a look at the two zone charts above, it doesn’t seem like Leclerc is missing over the plate more often, but it does appear as though his command has regressed to some degree (less variability with his pitches this season). He is not pitching beneath the strike zone as much as he used to in the past (could be making the splitter-fastball combo less effective).

When Woodward asserted that “They’re on pretty much everything he’s throwing,” it provoked me to consider the possibility that Leclerc could be tipping his pitches…

Graph via Brooks Baseball

As you can see in the graph above, Leclerc releases his splitter much further away from his body than his fastball. I’m guessing that hitters have caught on to this trend (which was present in 2018 as well), which could explain why they have managed to lay off of Leclerc’s pitches (which have generated the same “exact” movement as last year and similar location) and hit the ball harder when they accurately anticipate the incoming pitch.

Splitter
Fourseam fastball

Hitters have (presumably) found a way to triumph over Leclerc. Now it’s Leclerc’s turn to respond.

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