Emmanuel Clase is Wondrous

There’s an easy complaint that baseball fans the world over lob at analytical, number-driven sorts like me. “Hey nerd,” it starts. “Baseball is played on the field, and your numbers can’t measure heart and smarts.” The nerd part is constant, the things the numbers can’t measure varied. That complaint misses the mark, because no one loves baseball for the numbers without also loving it for the viewing pleasure. Appreciating the statistics doesn’t have to detract from how fun it is to watch a pickle or to see a beautifully executed tag.

While that complaint is mostly off the mark, it does get one thing about statistics right. There are some things that you simply don’t need a big sample size to know. Want to know if a player is adept at hitting the ball the other way with two strikes and runners in scoring position? You’ll need a sample that could blot out the sun. Want to know if a pitcher throws 100 mph? One or two pitches will do. Not everything needs to be regressed to the mean, and not everything needs thousands of data points to be valid.

Here’s merely one example: Emmanuel Clase has thrown 38 pitches in the majors. All of them have been this week. He has one strikeout, one walk, and nine batters faced. We’re nowhere near any of these numbers stabilizing, nowhere near his strikeout rate or walk rate or BABIP being meaningful. Despite all that, I can say this with certainty: Emmanuel Clase has a chance to be one of the best relievers in baseball, and he might be the most uncomfortable at-bat in the majors already.

Why? Well, Clase is a two-pitch reliever — 80% fastballs and 20% sliders. Look at pitch classifications, and the fastball usually turns up as a four-seamer. He averages 99 mph with it and has topped out at around 102 in the minors, which is already special enough, but that’s not even the interesting part. You see, it’s not a four-seam fastball, at least not in the way you think of that pitch. It’s not a fading, rising missile that explodes through the top of the strike zone. No, Clase throws a cutter, a 100-mile-an-hour optical illusion that bores in on the bats of lefties and the very souls of righties. One cutter was all I needed to see to know that I’m going to enjoy watching Clase for as long as he pitches.

Here’s the third pitch Clase threw in the major leagues:

Yeesh. The camera angle offset disguises the movement a little bit, but just think of the deception required to get a swinging strike with a fastball located here:

Want a tabular representation of why that pitch is so hard to deal with? Take a look at the horizontal and vertical movement of the 10 pitchers with the highest average four-seam velocity:

Movement Profile, Fastest Four-Seamers
Player Velocity (mph) H Mov (in) V Mov (in)
Jordan Hicks 102.7 -7.7 7.7
Andres Munoz 100.7 -5 7.6
Ray Black 99.5 -3.6 8.5
Emmanuel Clase 99.3 1.4 4.5
Tayron Guerrero 99.2 -5.1 8.7
José Alvarado 99.1 -4.8 8.4
Felipe Vázquez 98.5 -5.7 6.9
Diego Castillo 98.5 -5.5 7.1
Jimmy Cordero 98.3 -2.3 7.5
Trevor Rosenthal 98.3 -3.8 8.9
Avg (ex-Clase) 99.4 -4.8 7.9

Yeah, it’s safe to say Clase’s pitch moves a little differently. How about the 10 fastest cutters?

Movement Profile, Fastest Cutters
Player Velocity (mph) H Mov (in) V Mov (in)
Michael Lorenzen 93.9 -0.6 5.2
Colten Brewer 93.8 1.7 3.4
Blake Treinen 93.7 0.2 4.2
Nathan Eovaldi 93.3 0.9 4.4
Wander Suero 93.2 2.1 6.3
Kelvin Herrera 92.9 0.6 6.6
Lou Trivino 92.9 0.7 4.2
Walker Buehler 92.7 3.4 4.5
Bryan Shaw 92.4 2.5 3.7
Sonny Gray 92.4 1.2 5.2
Average 93.1 1.3 4.8

That looks like a list Clase would fit better on — the glove-side run and slight rise look right at home. The only difference is, he’s throwing his cutter five or six mph faster than anyone on the list. Batters are clearly expecting some arm-side fade given his velocity, which explains why this pitch that clips the outside corner is so mystifying:

If you’re into minor league video from THE BOARD, this one might even be more satisfying:

Good luck staying in the box when it looks like a 100 mph fastball is headed right for your ribcage. That pitch clipping the zone is simply unfair.

The reason I’m showing you videos and pitch movement rather than results is that Clase basically doesn’t have any results. His 32 fastballs have produced 7 swinging strikes out of 19 swings, an enviable 36.84% whiff rate. That’s nice, of course — it’d be the fifth-best whiff rate out of all four-seam fastballs, or 13th-best among cutters. It’s also only 32 pitches and 19 swings, not nearly enough data to draw any conclusions.

But with a pitch this singular, you don’t need a huge sample size. One look at it is enough to know it plays in the majors. A few glimpses of it in the minors were enough to move Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel’s fastball grade from 65 this offseason to a perfect 80 during the year. It’s one of only four current 80 fastballs across all prospects, and you can see why.

Even in that rarefied air of perfect-grade fastballs, Clase is a class apart. Andres Munoz and Ray Black have both appeared in the majors this year, and their fastballs feature on the fastest four-seam list above. Those pitches might be overpowering, but they’re conventionally overpowering. Melvin Adon, who hasn’t yet appeared in the majors, is more of the same — he has a fading, rising fastball that touches 102.

In fact, if you look around the major leagues for pitches that most resemble Clase’s fastball, you find a mix of cutters and sliders. Here are the 10 pitches (thrown at least 100 times in the majors this year) that have the most similar movement profile to Clase’s fastball:

Pitches Like Clase’s Fastball
Player Pitch Type Velocity (mph) H Mov (in) V Mov (in) Diff. from Clase (in)
Nick Kingham Cutter 90.7 1.1 4.5 0.3
John Gant Cutter 90.7 1.3 4.8 0.4
Dereck Rodríguez Slider 87.2 1.6 4.1 0.4
A.J. Minter Slider 91.5 1.7 4.3 0.4
Adam Ottavino Cutter 88.8 1.7 4.8 0.4
Nathan Eovaldi Cutter 93.3 0.9 4.4 0.4
Jake Arrieta Slider 90.2 1.9 4.4 0.5
Wade Miley Cutter 87.4 1.2 3.9 0.5
Jacob Waguespack Cutter 90.1 1.7 4.9 0.6
Eric Lauer Cutter 88.0 0.9 4.8 0.6

Clase is throwing a pitch that looks like other major-league-caliber pitches, only he’s throwing it nearly 10 ticks faster. Limit the list to pitches within 8 mph of Clase’s fastball, and there aren’t that many offerings within an inch of overall movement (excluding gravity):

Fast Pitches Like Clase’s Fastball
Player Pitch Type Velocity (mph) H Mov (in) V Mov (in) Diff. from Clase (in)
A.J. Minter Slider 91.5 1.7 4.3 0.4
Nathan Eovaldi Cutter 93.3 0.9 4.4 0.4
Lou Trivino Cutter 92.9 0.7 4.2 0.7
Colten Brewer Cutter 93.8 1.7 3.8 0.8
Dylan Covey Cutter 91.3 1.7 5.2 0.9
Zack Wheeler Slider 91.8 0.9 3.5 1.0
Marcus Stroman Cutter 91.6 0.4 3.9 1.1
Jacob deGrom Slider 92.9 2.0 3.6 1.1
Blake Treinen Cutter 93.7 0.2 4.2 1.2
Bryan Shaw Cutter 92.4 2.5 3.7 1.3

The point, in other words, is that you don’t find fastballs like this every day. You don’t find them basically ever, in fact. The Rangers were clearly aware of this when they brought Clase up. His minor league rate stats weren’t overpowering — 2.38 FIP, 25.5% strikeouts, and 5.2% walks in Double-A. Even the pitch level data wasn’t outrageous — he ran a good-but-not-great 15.3% swinging strike rate in the minors this year and got whiffs on 30% of swings.

He was effective in the minors, don’t get me wrong — more than half of the contact against him was foul, showing how tough of a time batters had timing him up, and he allowed only a single home run. Still, he wasn’t promoted for his stats. He didn’t even have the lowest FIP on his Double-A squad (that honor goes to Joe Barlow), and three pitchers (Barlow, Demarcus Evans, and the immaculately named Locke St. John) had better K-BB rates. No, he was called up because regardless of the sample, that pitch plays.

Seriously, watch this pitch and swing and you’ll immediately know:

If that one isn’t good enough for you, how about the insanity that Francisco Lindor has to deal with:

The pitch moves so oddly, it even fools umpires (a charitable interpretation of a bad call? Maybe. I just loved the GIF and wanted to include it):

Clase is also a reminder that baseball evaluation is hard. He’s a 21-year-old capable of relieving in the big leagues, a bullpen cog with such overwhelming stuff at a young age that it’s hard to project a ceiling if he can harness it. Could he be Craig Kimbrel? Kenley Jansen? Why not! He throws a pitch that essentially hasn’t existed before. Could he fail to control it and never reach his potential? Most definitely!

Only two years ago, the high end of this distribution of outcomes was unfathomable. Clase was a 19-year-old with an ERA and FIP over 5 in the rookie-level AZL, walking 12.6% of the batters he faced. The Padres traded him to the Rangers for Brett Nicholas, a depth-piece catcher who never appeared in a major league game for the Padres and retired earlier this year. A year and three months after the Padres traded him, he’s making Francisco Lindor look foolish. Prospect evaluation is hard!

We still need more time to know how hitters will adjust to Clase. We need to know if his command will stick, and if he’ll keep the velocity gains (he was sitting mid-90s two years ago) with a full-season workload. We need more data to see if his home run suppression is real and if he’ll continue to get tons of grounders after hitters have video on him. But we don’t need more time to say that Clase is must-see TV. Watch him whenever you get a chance. Whatever the outcome, you won’t be disappointed by the sheer spectacle of it.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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That pitch to Lindor may be one of the filthiest pitches I’ve ever seen. That was just ridiculous.