“Claudio, a 21-year-old lefty who split last season between A- Hickory and AA Frisco, has three pitches from a more traditional side-arm angle, though his party piece, the aforementioned changeup, has resulted in more thrown bats than Josh Hamilton.[...] Traditionally, left-handed sidearmers are used as one-out guys, the bits of the bullpen used maybe twice a week. However, Claudio’s changeup gives him a weapon that can neutralize right-handed bats despite his low arm slot. He turns more to his sinking mid-80s fastball and slider against his fellow southpaws, and while there is a definite difference in his effectiveness, it is less pronounced than for typical sidewinders. [...] Claudio could see AAA this year, but it is more likely that he’ll be a part of Frisco’s bullpen coming out of the spring.“ -January 8th, 2014 (Claudio was in the major leagues August 13, 2014).
For every rule, there is an exception. Major league baseball has seen unprecedented velocity increases in the last decade, possibly finding its pinnacle in the human incarnation of a Scandinavian god Noah Syndergaard. This rule of velocity increase, though, finds said exception in the Rangers’ favorite effective sidearmer, Alex Claudio.
So far in 2017, Claudio has had the 11th-slowest fastball in the majors, and two of the names below him are the knuckleballers R.A. Dickey and Steven Wright. His sinker averages 86.1 MPH, frequently floating in around 84 - nearly ten miles per hour slower than a Syndergaard changeup. Yet, in 4.1 innings this season, Claudio is unscored upon - and in 51.5 innings in 2016, he maintained an ERA under three, all while relying on speeds one sees out of high school.
This success is the culmination of a career in the minors that seemed improbable until it was simply undeniable. At first, Claudio was a curiosity - a skinny kid from Puerto Rico who dropped his arm slot to keep himself in baseball, ending up somewhere between Pat Neshek and Darren O’Day.
The changeup came next, a pitch that lurked in Low-A until he proved that it was unhittable by kids, then repeated that feat in High-A, then came up to Double-A and made Johan Limonta, among others, throw their bats into the much-needed protective netting.
Despite the results on the field, it was never certain that Claudio would ever graduate from the minor leagues, much less make himself an invaluable part of a competitive team’s bullpen.
Guys like Alex Claudio are why scouting can’t be purely numbers or purely eyes. Plenty of eyes saw Claudio, and saw an artful change, but the numbers - the velocity numbers - weren’t convincing.
Given the exponential increase in talent and experience as one travels up the minor league ladder, it’s not hard to understand the reluctance of many to view Claudio’s successes as carrying, but given the chance to prove himself, he proved himself over and over.
At some point, most “trick” pitchers are exposed by the zone control and patience of high minors and major league hitters. An 87 MPH fastball with command can play in Double-A, but rare, now, is the overhand thrower that can reliably get big leaguers out with that. A giant sweeping slider is nice, until the handed hitter it’s been thrown to simply stops swinging and starts walking.
Claudio, though, thanks to his unusual armslot, awkward delivery, and knack for spinning the ball, has put together a package that’s greater than the sum of its parts. That in itself is an accomplishment worth celebrating, for the minors are full of pitchers who are those finishing touches away from success.
Be sure to follow Kate on Twitter @unlikelyfanatic as she watches out for more unique talent in the minors this summer.