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Emmanuel Clase set the bar high with his rookie season

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The second-best player for Cleveland this year was a reliever, and somehow he’s poised to get even better

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

What does it say about the 2021 Cleveland baseball team that their second-best player was a reliever? Honestly, it’s probably pretty accurate given the growing pains and outright struggles the offense faced and the medical ward occupied by the starting rotation. And yet, it would have been really nice if the second-best player on the team was not a reliever.

The last legitimately good team whose second-best player was a reliever was probably one of the Yankees squads that included Mariano Rivera … which is not a bad launching point to start discussing what Emmanuel Clase did this season. Perhaps I’m being rash starting with the Mo comp, him being the only player elected to the Hall of Fame unanimously and whatnot, but a cutter like Clase’s is the kind to dream on.

In terms of quantifiable value, Clase’s cutter was 10.7 runs above average per FanGraphs’ weighted fastball metrics. That ranked 14th among all relievers but would have been second only to Kenley Jansen if it had been properly categorized as a cutter rather than a straight fastball. Jansen’s cutter makes a good comparison, but as great as it is, it still doesn’t stand up to what Clase brings. The two pitches have nearly the same vertical movement (-15 vs. -16 inches for Jansen and Clase) and Jansen generates a little more horizontal break (7 vs. 3 inches), but Jansen throws his cutter 93 mph and Clase pumps his at 100 mph (on average).

Clase ranked in the 100th percentile for fastball velocity. Literally, no one else could touch his average cutter, with Brusdar Graterol placing a distant second at 95.4 mph on the Baseball Savant leaderboard. This separation is what makes Clase truly special. Sure, his cutter might look a lot like Jansen’s in terms of value, movement, and outcome (.260 vs. .255 wOBA), but the speed is not close, and nor is the age. Jansen is 34, whereas Clase is just 23. In 12 seasons with the Dodgers, Jansen has accumulated 21.2 fWAR; if he can continue to pitch well for a few more seasons, he’ll have a case for Cooperstown as well. Clase put up 2.2 fWAR in his rookie season and there’s every reason to believe he can improve with age.

It seems funny to discuss improvements from a player with a cutter as good as Clase’s – a player that went 20 innings between July 17 and Sept. 2 without surrendering a single run – but the room for growth exists in the margins. For instance, despite limiting opponents to a .195 average, Clase still had a 0.96 WHIP because of a 5.7% walk rate. Neither his WHIP nor walk rate are particularly bad, but considering Clase’s secondary pitch, his slider, gets whiffed at 40% of the time but is only a putaway pitch 23.9% of the time, it seems like his sequencing could improve. The slider averages 91.8 mph (eight mph slower than the cutter) and generates 3.2 inches of horizontal and vertical movement greater than average, making it an absolutely devastating pairing with the fastball. If the Guardians can use the slider more effectively, Clase’s numbers (particularly hard-hit rate and xwOBA) stand to benefit, and he can become an even better pitcher.

I believe there is an even better pitcher in Clase and, with good luck and good health, he’s poised to become one of the finest relief pitchers in all of baseball. He’s there with Jansen now and, who knows, maybe he can reach the heights of Rivera one day. If he does he may be one of the best players in Cleveland – regardless of position – for years to come. It would be nice if he were surrounded by many quality players in a championship team, but for now, we can enjoy this:

  • Shane Bieber: 96.2 IP, 3.17 ERA, 33.1 K%, 8.1 BB%, 3.21 SIERA, 2.6 fWAR
  • Aaron Civale: 124.1 IP, 3.84 ERA, 19.9 K%, 6.2 BB%, 4.41 SIERA, 0.8 fWAR
  • Andres Gimenez: .218/.282/.351, 5 HR, 11 SB, 5.2 BB%, 25.7 K%, 73 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR
  • Triston McKenzie: 120.0 IP, 4.95 ERA, 27.5 K%, 11.7 BB%, 4.36 SIERA, 1.1 fWAR
  • Eli Morgan: 89.1 IP, 5.34 ERA, 21.4 K%, 5.8 BB%, 4.51 SIERA, 0.4 fWAR
  • Zach Plesac: 142.2 IP, 4.67 ERA, 16.7 K%, 5.7 BB%, 4.73 SIERA, 1.1 fWAR
  • Cal Quantrill: 149.2 IP, 2.89 ERA, 19.6 K%, 7.6 BB%, 4.52 SIERA, 1.9 fWAR
  • Franmil Reyes: .254/.324/.522, 30 HR, 4 SB, 9.2 BB%, 32.0 K%, 125 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR
  • Amed Rosario: .282/.321/.409, 11 HR, 13 SB, 5.3 BB%, 20.4 K%, 99 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR
  • Myles Straw: .285/.362/.377, 2 HR, 13 SB, 10.8 BB%, 18.7 K%, 108 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR

Poll

Who should be our No. 3 Guardians player for 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Shane Bieber
    (5 votes)
  • 1%
    Aaron Civale
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Andres Gimenez
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Triston McKenzie
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Eli Morgan
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Zach Plesac
    (0 votes)
  • 58%
    Cal Quantrill
    (51 votes)
  • 9%
    Franmil Reyes
    (8 votes)
  • 20%
    Amed Rosario
    (18 votes)
  • 4%
    Myles Straw
    (4 votes)
87 votes total Vote Now