DALLAS — I wouldn’t necessarily say it was fitting that the man who replaced my first-half Cy Young would go on to win my second-half Cy Young. After all, there wasn’t exactly a host of candidates primed to step up and take the title. Nonetheless, it was the 24-year old split-change artist Jose Leclerc that impressed all across Major League Baseball and became one of the biggest and brightest stars in an otherwise fairly dismal season.
When Keone Kela was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, there was some question as to who would replace him as the Rangers closer. I do say, “question,” and not, “concern,” as many had already resigned themselves to the idea of a losing season.
The team had traded away Jesse Chavez, Jake Diekman and Cory Gearrin, all candidates to save games. Matt Bush and Tony Barnette suffered season-ending injuries, and the replacements in the bullpen were all rookies, such as C.D. Pelham, or severely unproven journeymen like Eddie Butler.
Alex Claudio was going through some challenges of his own, after being Texas’ most consistent reliever over two years, and Connor Sadzeck had bounced back and forth from being a starter and reliever over the course of the season and wouldn't be called up until September.
Thus, the Rangers turned to Jose Leclerc. Leclerc delivered. As young closers and phenom relievers on teams involved in playoff chases were thrust into the spotlight – Edwin Diaz, Josh Hader, Blake Treinen among them – Texas utilized Leclerc against contending teams and he turned into the closer of the future.
Coming off of a couple of cups of coffee in the big leagues in 2016 and 2017, a season in which things looked bleak for Leclerc, the hard-throwing righty overcame control issues this season to have, what FanGraphs termed, “The Best Reliever Season You Haven’t Heard About.”
Utilizing the cut change, Leclerc enjoyed a high ratio of strikeouts, both in terms of innings pitched and compared to walks. These numbers, as all of his numbers did, improved after the All-Star Break. The ERA dropped from 2.18 to 0.73. His K/BB ratio improved from 2.67 to 5.29. Opponents’ Batting Average Against? It went down from an already incredible .138 to .110. Leclerc’s WHIP dropped from an even 1.000 to 0.649. He converted 12 save opportunities as the Rangers had few opportunities to have him come in with a lead in the 9th inning.
The one and only ninth inning blown save that Leclerc suffered came on July 25 but that can be dismissed almost entirely because it came via a home run off the bat of Khris Davis who we all know is a human cheat code against Texas. Still, it obviously made Leclerc mad because – again, this happened on the 25th of July, over two months before the season would conclude, and Leclerc didn't allow another run for the entire remainder of the year.
As we all know, bullpen pieces can be incredibly volatile and are typically the least consistent performers year to year. You don’t need to look further than the Texas Rangers closers of the last handful of seasons to confirm that. With any luck, Leclerc, who is under team control for another five seasons, can build off of what he did over the second half of 2018 and remain an anchor in the bullpen.
For now, though, enjoy the fact that Jose Leclerc had an outstanding second half, helped seamlessly transition the ailing 2018 Texas Rangers from Keone Kela, and is going to be one of the bright spots in 2019.
Do you think Leclerc can continue his dominance in 2019 or should expectations be restrained until he proves himself again? Share your thoughts with Matt on Twitter @FisherWritesMLB.