For all the elite things about Emmanuel Clase, generating swings and misses is his least elite. He’s still very good at it, with an 80th-percentile whiff rate last year, according to Baseball Savant, but with everything else being so incredibly dominant — including 100th-percentile pitch velocity, chase rate, and fastball spin — this may be the last place that Clase can elevate himself even further. From an S rank to an SSS rank, if you will.
This is a discussion that the Guardians are clearly already having, as pitching coach Carl Willis mentioned after Clase’s impressive spring debut earlier this month:
“The one thing that showed itself last year was when (Clase) accidentally got to the top of the strike zone and above, hitters really couldn’t pull the trigger or got beat,” Willis told reporters covering spring training. “We’re working on establishing the ability for him to do that when he wants to do it as opposed to just the occasional accident.
So, precisely what does Willis mean by that? What did he see last year, and what is he looking to help Clase improve for 2023 and beyond? Surely he knows the specifics, and he has already relayed it to Clase, but we can make some educated guesses.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume that what Willis meant here by “top of the strike zone and above” is what Baseball Savant categorizes as the “shadow” of a typical area of attack for a pitcher, specifically zones 11, 12, and 13 on this chart.
Just as Willis describes it, this area encompasses the upper edge of the zone as well as a bit out of it.
The shadow zone, in general, is where pitchers want to throw pitches. It’s where elite framers make their money by making sure everything looks like a strike. Pitchers who can “paint the edges of the zone” live here, but typically not in the upper edge of it. That’s reserved for hard throwers like Clase.
Essentially, this area is the perfect bait for a batter staring down the barrel of a 99+ mph fastball. For a pitcher with elite velocity and fastball spin rate (of which Clase has both), this is the money zone. A pitch that would in the olden days be dubbed a “rising” fastball will usually entice a batter to swing under it, thinking it’s a meatball in the upper part of the strikezone. Most triple-digit pitchers use this area to “climb the ladder” and make their fastballs look crushable to a batter who wants to be the hero in the ninth inning of a close game. Most of the time, though, it’s a whiff.
As Willis mentioned in the quote above, Clase didn’t do it much last year — not on purpose anyway. Of the 570 cutters and four-seam fastballs he threw last year, most ate up the heart of the plate, with some cutters coming up on the hands of hitters who got a little too comfortable. Still mostly unhittable because he throws so darn hard, but we’re trying to squeeze every ounce of eliteness we can out of him here. So there is clearly some room for improvement.
Compare that to, say, 2015 Aroldis Chapman — arguably his best season since Statcast measurements became a thing. Chapman is, of course, another fireballing reliever who once routinely led the league in pitch velocity. He also wasn’t afraid to climb the ladder with his heater and he finished 2015 with a remarkable 41.7% strikeout rate.
Clase finished 2022 with only a 28.4% strikeout rate and only a 30.4% CSW% (called strikes plus whiffs), 48th among qualified relievers. Not nearly the worst, but also not the 99th percentile kind of elite he ranks everywhere else. Certainly not the kind of swing-and-miss ability one would expect with his kind of stuff.
Based on the shadow zone outlined above, Clase threw a total of 96 upper shadow zone pitches last year, 40 of which were either swung on and missed or a called strike. That’s a 41.7% CSW%, which would rank only behind Edwin Diaz’s 42.1% CSW% last year if he could do it more often.
Turning the focus to only pitches thrown in those upper shadow zones, among relievers who threw at least 80 pitches there, Clase’s 41.7% CSW% in this zone (which I’ll refer to as sCSW%, or called strike whiff percentage in the shadow zone, going forward) ranked 20th — and that’s when he wasn’t even trying to attack the zone on purpose. This is the kind of thing, I suspect, Willis is talking about when he talks about the kind of pitches Clase should be trying to throw on purpose.
We’re talking about the kind of pitches that look like this.
Or this one in the AL Wild Card last year.
Or this one.
Wait, sorry, that one was Franmil Reyes casually pumping 87 on the mound, but it’s still the same idea. A good, high-spinning fastball up in the zone can be excellent bait for the right kind of pitch, coming from the right kind of pitcher.
It’s probably no coincidence that a couple of Clase’s more successful teammates also rank highly in sCSW%. Trevor Stephan and James Karinchak had a 42.28% and 44.88% sCSW%, respectively. They, too, have excellent fastball spin rates, but nothing on Emmanuel Clase’s 2653 rpm cutter. The biggest difference is that those two also threw pitches in this upper shadow zone 123 and 127 times, compared to Clase’s aforementioned 96.
This isn’t a place where any old pitcher can find success, though. Take Jake Diekman, for example. Last year he lead the league in sCSW% (47.50%) but finished with a 4.99 ERA between the Red Sox and White Sox. But he’s also not out there pumping triple digits with a sick slider in his pocket, either.
For Clase, though, this area represents one place that he already dominates but just hasn’t done it very often with purpose. His cutters are tailor-made for this kind of upper-zone devastation, he just needs the confidence to do it more often. This is but a small part of a pitching approach, but it’s one that he could potentially master and somehow be even better in 2023.