Part of what makes projecting a player difficult, how will he carry over the gains from a breakout season? José Leclerc finished 2018 with 12 saves and 32 strikeouts over his last 21 appearances. Teeming with upside and a high strikeout percentage, LeClerc seemed poised to join the top tier of closers. 

However, LeClerc lost the hold on the job during the season, ceding saves to Shawn Kelley and Chris Martin . Walks led to traffic on the bases and when LeClerc could not escape damage, his ratios and grip on the ninth inning struggled. Last season, LeClerc went 2-4 with 14 saves, a 100:39 K:BB, a 4.33 ERA, 4.21 xFIP and 1.33 WHIP in 68.2 innings. This eclipsed his 3.10 xFIP from 2018 by over a run. 

So what happened? First, LeClerc’s swinging strike percentage dropped by 3.6 percent to 13.5 and his contact allowed jumped to 69.1 percent, a rise of over six percent. Some bad luck with LeClerc’s batting average on balls in play rising by over 100 points. He also allowed a 45 percent fly ball rate with a 10.4 home run per fly ball percentage in a very hitter friendly environment. But the worst part, LeClerc’s walk percentage jumped to 13 percent. During the second half of 2018, LeClerc’s 7.7 walk rate fueled his breakout. It’s tough to be an elite closer with a walk percentage like his from last season. 

Can LeClerc rebound? Here lies the huge caveat if taking him in any drafts or targeting him in an auction this season. For the good news, LeClerc did convert his last six save chances of 2019 once the Rangers gutted their bullpen via trade. LeClerc also notched nine of 11 save opportunities in the second half of 2019 with a 3.86 ERA in 28 innings. However, his 37:17 K:BB after the break kept his walk percentage in the bottom seven percent of the league. His first pitch strike percentage also cratered to a low of 50.8 percent in the second half. At his best, in the second half of 2018, LeClerc recorded a 62.3 first pitch strike percentage which did translate to the first half of last season (63 percent) as well with mixed results. 

Using the pitch plot on Statcast, here’s LeClerc’s arsenal: 

It appears LeClerc made a conscious effort to use his change-up more in 2019, with a few less fastballs and sliders as a result. Knowing strikeouts will be a key to any resurgence, check out the same chart with swinging strikes as the filter: 

It seems like getting ahead in the count would be a key to LeClerc’s success. But, he threw fewer fastballs as his first pitch in 2019. It’s very possible the new baseballs played a role in this, reducing LeClerc’s feel for the pitch, affecting his control along with working from behind in the count making him center pitches instead of working on the periphery. With this in mind, here’s LeClerc’s underlying numbers on Statcast. He continues to rank among the league leaders in his predictive statistics with a .175 expected batting average against (xBA), .288 expected slugging (xSLG), .267 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) and 28.3 hard hit percentage allowed. Here’s his pitch breakdown: 

  • Four-seam Fastball - 40.4 percent usage, .196 xBA, .349 xSLG, .322 xwOBA, 26.4 strikeout percentage, 27.6 whiff percent
  • Slider - 38 percent usage, .138 xBA, .237 xSLG, .281 xwOBA, 46.6 strikeout percentage, 40.9 whiff percent
  • Change-up - 11.7 percent usage, .157 xBA, .221 xSLG, .248 xwOBA, 32.4 strikeout percentage, 40.6 whiff percent
  • Sinker - 8.7 percent usage, .313 xBA, .378 xSLG, .341 xwOBA, zero strikeout percentage, 20 whiff percent

Before delving into his projection, two charts illustrating a difference between 2018 and 2019 from Statcast about swing and take affecting outcomes:

During LeClerc’s surge in 2018, he worked effectively in the zone and in the shadow area as noted: 

Last season, he lost the gains displayed: 

Despite all of his warts, José Leclerc enters 2020 as the closer for Texas. His projection comes with a mix of upside and warning: 

  • José Leclerc 2020 Steamer Projection - 4 Wins, 29 Saves, 68 IP, 94:35 K:BB, 3.72 ERA, 4.12 xFIP, 1.28 WHIP

Of course, this projection comes with a 32.2 strikeout percentage and 12.1 walk rate. How LeClerc does in terms of working ahead in the count along with keeping runners off base may determine his outcomes in the season ahead. As for targeting him, LeClerc sets up as a strong second closer with the potential for upside. Of course, he also could lose his handle on the job again. Inconsistency litters LeClerc’s profile. It also accompanies his position as a closer. If investing in LeClerc, be sure to handcuff him in the last round with Joely Rodriguez . Track very closely how LeClerc does in the spring in terms of strikeouts against walk rates. This could be the key to a potential rebound to LeClerc’s second half from 2018, or perhaps it will be an outlier fantasy owners continue to chase with little success if he cannot. Hope lies in his Statcast peripherals, danger in the walk rates, treat him accordingly. 


Statistical Credits: