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Emmanuel Clase’s road to glory was paved with groundballs

The Guardians’ closer of the present and future is unconventional but elite

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Guardians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Dec. 15, 2019, will go down in history as the day the Guardians robbed the Rangers.

That day, Cleveland traded starting pitcher Corey Kluber to Texas in exchange for outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. and relief pitcher Emmanuel Clase.

The trade was a complete bust for the Rangers, as Kluber pitched only one inning for them before being sidelined for the rest of the season with a tear in his right shoulder. DeShields didn’t amount to much in one pandemic-shortened season with the Guardians, and Clase was suspended for the 2020 season after testing positive for a banned substance.

Three years later, we can safely say Cleveland won the trade based on Clase alone.

He finished his rookie season in 2021 with 24 saves and a 1.29 ERA over 69.2 innings of work, which was all the Guardians’ front office needed to see to sign the 24-year-old right-hander to a five-year contract extension worth $20 million back in April.

Clase rewarded their faith with one of the best seasons by a Cleveland closer in club history. He converted a league-leading 42 saves in 46 opportunities, becoming the first Guardian to record 40+ saves since Joe Borowski notched 45 in 2007 (a minor miracle considering Borowski’s 5.07 ERA that year) and only the sixth Cleveland closer to record 40 or more saves in a season.

Compared to the rest of the league, he trailed only Mets closer Edwin Diaz in WAR. His 1.36 ERA was the best by any major league reliever who logged a minimum of 70 innings. Clase also ranked in the 90th percentile or better in xBA, xSLG, average exit velocity, hard hit percentage, barrel percentage, and chase rate, according to Baseball Savant.

Baseball Savant

With how dominant he is on the mound, you would think Clase was a strikeout machine. But as you can see in the graphic above, the only percentiles where he looks human are strikeout percentage and whiff percentage. That is a product of his cutter, which averaged 99.5 mph this season and is better at inducing groundouts than missing bats. Clase ranked fourth among all qualified relievers this season in groundball percentage (63.9%).

Batters are more likely to swing and miss against his slider, which boasted a 42.7% whiff percentage this season. Hitters only slashed .119/.160/.174 against it. Clase averaged 91.9 mph on his slider, a mark bested by just two other pitchers in the league: the Mets’ Jacob DeGrom (92.6 mph) and the Astros’ Hunter Brown (93.2 mph). When you pair Clase’s two pitches with a consistent release point, life becomes very difficult for opposing hitters.

Clase is truly one of a kind and looks to be the anchor of the Guardians’ bullpen for the foreseeable future, but I hope fans don’t take for granted how special he was this season.

Emmanuel Clase’s 2022 Stats

72.2 28.4% 3.7% 1.36 35 2.4

Total MVP points: 55
1st place votes: 1
2nd place votes: 1
3rd place votes: 1

We’re reviewing (almost) all the Guardians players from 2022 now through November, starting with the top-10 MVPs as voted on by eight Covering the Corner staff members. Players were awarded points based on their one through 10 individual rankings and were ranked as such. You can find all the Year in Review posts here.