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There are two schools of thought regarding what to do with the reliever position in fantasy baseball. The first mentality is to grab an elite arm early, guaranteeing you elite ratios and a safe save source. The other method of thinking, that’s becoming increasingly popular, is to wait until the later rounds or to find your save numbers on waivers. This trend is growing more popular for a number of reasons. Several teams have a revolving door of guys picking up saves for their squads, some pitchers get hurt, or some will underperform and lose their job mid-season. These factors lead to finding plenty of saves on the waiver wire, while it is a bit riskier, the reward can be just as gratifying as reaching for that elite level arm early.

If you were the manager in your league last year who streamed closers and scooped up Jose Leclerc mid-season, you looked like a genius. After the Texas Rangers traded Keone Kela to Pittsburgh, it opened the door for Leclerc to step in as the teams closer. After dominating the first half of the year as a set-up man, Leclerc became even more dominant in the second half as the ninth inning arm. Finishing the year with a minuscule 1.56 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and a skillful 13.27 K/9, he also had the elite metrics to support these numbers.

Let's look at some data to see what can be expected from Leclerc moving forward as the new ace in the Texas bullpen.

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Strikeouts and Walks

Leclerc has always been at least a strikeout-per-inning guy since Single-A ball. Over his entire minor league career, he has a 9.9 K/9, and so far in his big league career, which started in 2016, that number sits at 12.2 K/9. His 13.27 K/9 from his age 24 season last year was by far his best number to date as a strikeout arm, so let’s see what factored into the new career high.

Primarily a two-pitch pitcher, Leclerc relies on his four-seamer and an excellent split-finger to get his outs. His fastball averaged 95.8 MPH, and his split was clocked in over 14 MPH slower at 81.7 MPH, a devastating combination. Generating an excellent 24.6% Whiff% on the split, batters only put this ball in play just over 8% of the time with only one extra-base hit, that being a double. Leclerc finished 2018 with the highest SwStr% (17.2%) and lowest Contact% (62.9%) of his short career. Not only were these career bests, but they were also among the best rates of relievers in baseball last season. He was tied for fifth-best with Craig Kimbrel in SwStr%, and he was second best in Contact% to Kimbrel's 62.7%, and slightly better than third place Josh Hader’s 63.4%, a couple of satisfying names to be drawn in comparison.

The free pass is something that Leclerc will need to improve on if he wants to remain associated with the elite bullpen arms. So far, Leclerc has a career 5.9 BB/9 in the majors, not a good number to say the least. He did manage to finish 2018 with a 3.9 BB/9, just slightly worse than the league average for a reliever. He did, however, keep improving his walk rate as the season progressed. From the beginning of the season until June 30, the right-hander’s mark sat at 5.16 BB/9. From that point on until the remainder of the campaign, it dropped significantly to a 2.57 BB/9, a remarkable transformation. A big part of this productive stride forward was throwing a first-pitch strike over 10% more often than what he did in the first half. If he keeps limiting the free pass, Leclerc will become even more of a threat on the mound.

 

Batted Balls

Leclerc excelled at generating soft contact. His 26.4% Soft% was fifth best in baseball, and his Hard% was an identical number finishing as 13th-best. These numbers helped him achieve an AVG/OBP/SLG line of .123/.237/.193 with the AVG and SLG being the best marks in baseball. Statcast also had Leclerc among the league leaders in limiting Barrels/PA (1.8%), and he was second in average exit velocity (83.7 MPH). Leclerc was league average in LD% (20.8%) but gave up more fly balls than most. A league-leading infield fly ball rate (28.0%) aided a 47.2% FB%. The amount of soft contact Leclerc generated kept him to amazingly serving up only one home run all season, which occurred at the end of July off the bat of Khris Davis.

Since he was given the reigns as the Rangers closer, Leclerc was lights out. Picking up 12 saves, he never allowed another run the rest of the season since that longball to Davis. Going 21.0 scoreless innings to finish off the year, Leclerc generated more soft contact over this span (28.6%) as well as improving his fly ball rate (45.7%) and line drive rate (17.1%). He kept his WHIP to a microscopic 0.52, and his 1.78 SIERA suggested that this outstanding finish wasn't a series of flukes that prevented runners from scoring.

 

2019 Value

Leclerc proved to be a legitimate bullpen arm in 2018 with the continued second-half success in all metrics. With no one else even close to Leclerc’s ability in the Rangers pen, his job as closer is as safe as it gets as long as he’s healthy. With only one career disabled list stint and a low arm stress pitching arsenal, the 25-year old should be able to remain on the diamond. It’s unlikely that he’ll continue this kind of torrid pace in the majors, because no matter how good or bad a player is, regression is destined for everyone. What Leclerc has in his favor though, is all the strong peripherals to limit this negative regression and keep him in the mix as a top relief arm in baseball.

If you decide to choose the path of selecting an elite relief arm early, Leclerc is a solid choice to build your bullpen around. The Rangers 2018 Pitcher of the Year is currently going off the board as the 12th reliever selected with an ADP of 115. At this price, it is a pretty good bargain as he can keep his ERA and WHIP numbers as good as a top-five relief option, especially if he continues his second-half walk rate from last season. His strikeout ability is also much better than some of the other relievers going before him, and you can expect him to keep missing the same amount of bats that he did in 2018. Don’t think that being on a below average team will hurt his amount of save chances either as the team with the league leader in saves the past two seasons both missed out on the playoffs. Say “yes way, Jose” to Leclerc in 2019.

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