Emmanuel Clase Opts For Security

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

While the period for extensions is usually longer, this year’s circumstances have made it a brief one, squeezed between a flurry of arbitration hearings and the upcoming baseball season. That doesn’t mean there’s been a shortage, though; according to Spotrac, the 32 extensions signed so far in 2022 marks the highest total since 40 were agreed to in 2019. While I first assumed a much lower number, it’s important to remember some were signed pre-lockout, like with Byron Buxton and José Berríos.

Anyhow, here’s one I found interesting. Having completed his rookie campaign in 2021, Guardians closer Emmanuel Clase was slated to become arbitration-eligible ahead of ‘24, followed by an entry into the open market in ‘26. But an extension has wiped those years out and possibly more. Per Joel Sherman of the New York Post, Clase is guaranteed $20 million over five years. There are two options, worth $10 million apiece, that can either cover his first two years of free agency (2027 and ’28), or be bought out for $2 million each.

Some minor details include a $2 million signing bonus and escalators that can take the options to $13 million. The main point, though, is this is a long, affordable commitment made at the genesis of a player’s career, starting at pre-arbitration and possibly ending several years later. From the Guardians’ perspective, they’ve locked up a star reliever for cheap. But from Clase’s perspective, one has to wonder if he’s leaving money on the table. The future is hazy this early in someone’s career, but when said career has been brilliant thus far, the “what could have been” takes over.

Let’s entertain that thought for a moment. You already know Clase is great. In the 69.2 innings he handled last season, he recorded a 1.29 ERA, 2.11 FIP, and 2.60 xFIP, all elite marks. His secret weapon is a cutter that sits 100 mph, with late glove-side movement that helps it veer away from the bat’s sweet spot. Then there’s the complementary 90-mph slider, featuring nasty two-plane break, that functions as a necessary out pitch. When they’re both manufactured to give hitters headaches, two weapons are all a pitcher needs.

But here’s yet another demonstration of Clase’s greatness. Compared to other relievers, he’s a bit lacking in the strikeout department, which does leave him more vulnerable to batted ball randomness. And while it’s true that pitchers are mostly bystanders when it occurs, it is possible to minimize the damage beforehand. The difficulty involved is unfathomable, but successful efforts have shaped careers. Clase, the point in red, might be on a path to do the same:

Last season, Clase owned the league’s third-highest groundball rate. Related to that, he also owned the league’s’s lowest barrel rate. When hitters made contact against him, they seldom succeeded in leaving the infield. In technical terms, this is because secondary fastballs like sinkers and cutters seem to produce lower launch angles with higher velocities. In casual terms, this is because Clase throws gas.

What all this culminates with: I looked at rookie seasons from relievers stretching back two decades, including requirements for workload (60 innings or more) and age (25 or younger). It’s one thing to isolate Clase’s achievements, but it’s another to consider his place in recent history. How dominant was he as a young reliever, really? And is there a precedent? Here are the ten best seasons, as determined by era- and park-adjusted FIP:

Best Rookie Reliever Seasons, 2002-21
Name Season Breakout FIP-
Craig Kimbrel 2011 40
Jonathan Papelbon 2006 49
Emmanuel Clase 2021 50
Chris Devenski 2016 50
Trevor Rosenthal 2013 51
Carson Smith 2015 53
Ken Giles 2015 54
Greg Holland 2011 55
José Alvarado 2018 56
Joakim Soria 2007 57

There are 124 individual seasons that made it through my somewhat stringent requirements; among them, Clase has an argument for third place. It’s hard to last 60-plus innings as a rookie. It’s even harder to do so while being dominant. Last season, Clase accomplished both tasks without breaking much of a sweat; his roughest stretch came in July, when he stumbled to a still-respectable 3.81 FIP. With such an auspicious start, might he have commanded north of $4 million — the AAV for the duration of his extension — in arbitration and beyond? Seeing the names listed above, it’s easy to think so.

But as star-studded as that table is, it also provides a cautionary tale. For starters, every reliever listed never quite recaptured the magic of his rookie season. That in and of itself isn’t a bad omen; Holland helped the Royals win a championship, and Kimbrel has a case for Cooperstown. There are, however, career arcs that are more tragic than others. To wit, here’s a different table, showing how well each of the top ten (excluding Clase) performed in the five seasons following the breakout. If someone had yet to play that long, I stopped at his most recent season. I also indicated whether injuries had an impact:

Post-Breakout Relief Performances
Name Five-Year FIP- Injury?
Craig Kimbrel 52 No
Greg Holland 59 No
Jonathan Papelbon 60 No
Ken Giles 64 Yes
Carson Smith 74 Yes
Joakim Soria 74 No
Trevor Rosenthal 77 No
Chris Devenski 98 Yes
José Alvarado 108 No

The best-case scenarios are Kimbrel, Holland, and Papelbon, all of whom experienced ups and downs and eventual declines but whose sparkling peaks are matched by few others. Giles had a decently long run of dominance until Tommy John surgery and subsequent setbacks kept him out of action. Soria might not be a household name, but he’s been blessed with a longevity seldom granted to relief pitchers. Rounding out the list of positive outcomes is Rosenthal. Injuries caused him to miss the entirety of last season, but because they occurred after his five years, I didn’t count them as a “yes.”

Smith’s path is downright heartbreaking. After an extraordinary 2015 debut, a cascade of injuries meant he never fully returned; that 74 FIP- looks shiny, but it’s based on an extremely abbreviated sample. By ‘18, he was out of the league. It’s a similar story with Devenski, who lost his stuff, then his health. The only drop in performance unrelated to injury is Alvarado. Maybe it’s unlikely Clase will suffer from a similar strike-throwing problem given his track record, but one can never be too sure.

Compared to my initial expectations, I suppose these are a pretty good batch of outcomes. At the same time, though, the presumed worst-case scenario is bad — very bad. Perhaps that rings true for any position under most circumstances, but there is a higher degree of volatility associated with relievers. Going back to Clase, he does have just one season and a half under his belt, and early in 2020, a back injury sidelined him for a couple of months. There’s both a history and a lack thereof. They don’t exactly instill a sense of sureness, which might have influenced his decision to agree to an extension.

In signing an eight-figure contract, Clase parlayed a masterful season into financial security, insuring himself against whatever may occur in the future. On the flip side, there’s a good chance that $20 million and more will grossly misrepresent his value. As baffling as it sounds, Clase could improve from here; his swinging-strike rate suggests that he deserved more strikeouts, and most projections agree. Either way, it’s difficult to say what the correct option is. One has already been made. The bottom line is that a great reliever will remain in Cleveland for years to come. You can understand why Clase was enthusiastic about that prospect, and you can understand why the Guardians were, too. That’s how these sort of long-term extensions come into existence.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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2 years ago

It makes sense for Clasé, honestly. Relievers, even the good ones, are notoriously volatile, and when your entire arsenal is based on a 100 MPH cutter, securing yourself 20 million straight up + another 20 million in team options that will be executed if he does well seems smart to me. For Cleveland it’s smart too, because now they can throw him into save situations without worrying about his arbitration figures: I’ll bet you money Clasé leads the league in saves over the length of his contract moving forward, as he should.

Clasé is just such an interesting reliever to me, because his true strength is supressing contact quality and he throws a lot of strikes, which is not a classic relief ace profile at all. It makes him super unique, and I hope that never truly changes. We have too many assembly line pitchers in baseball right now.

Last edited 2 years ago by mariodegenzgz
2 years ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

I’m usually gonna be skeptical of any team friendly deal the Dolans sign but I feel like it’s great serving both their interests in a fair way.

Players do enjoy this level of security, and he’s a Young guy getting a huge raise quick. Realistically if he’s the next Kimbrel he makes like what, 50-55 million, maybe 60. Kimrel made about 45-46 million by the time he reached the years of experience that Clase would (end of his 4 year deal)