On Wednesday, the Texas Rangers agreed to a four-year contract extension with closer Jose Leclerc worth $14.75 million with two additional option years worth $6 million and $6.25 million, respectively. Leclerc, 25, was one of the most pleasant surprises on a rather dismal Rangers team in 2018 and ranked fourth in baseball among in relievers in WAR, behind only Blake Treinen, Edwin Diaz, and Josh Hader. Among all pitchers with 30 innings pitched in 2018, Leclerc ranked fifth in ERA (1.56), fifth in FIP (1.90), and 11th in strikeout percentage (38.1%).
Given Leclerc’s lack of leverage with four years until free agency, the contract is unsurprisingly not for a princely sum, and isn’t even in the same galaxy as the four-year, $42 million extension Craig Kimbrel signed with the Braves before the 2014 season. The extension buys out all of Leclerc’s arbitration years, possibly resulting in a six-year deal with the options. These types of arbitration year extensions may be rarer for relievers than you think; to my surprise, after a quick perusal of contracts, I only found seven pre-free agency relievers whose current contract involved a multi-year extension with option years: Brad Hand, Nate Jones, Chris Devenski, Sean Doolittle, Jeremy Jeffress, Tony Barnette, and Felipe Vazquez. While it’s certainly possible I missed a contract or two, showing this type of commitment to a reliever prior to free agency is not a run-of-the-mill occurrence.
[Adam Morris of has reminded me that Tony Barnette signed as as free agent from Japan – DS]
One thing notable about Leclerc is how quickly he went from being an interesting-but-very-wild pitcher to one of the elite relievers in baseball. The ZiPS projection for Leclerc going into 2018 was a 4.22 ERA, 107 ERA+ season with an abysmal 51 walks in 70 1/3 innings, and ZiPS was not an outlier here. Now, in a sense it’s impressive that a pitcher forecast for that many walks could still have a projection that placed them around league-average, but baseball history is full of hard-throwing young relievers who never get over their propensity to issue free passes. A 5.1 BB/9 in the minors isn’t generally conducive to a long major league career.
Leclerc didn’t become Bob Tewksbury in 2018, but he did get his control to a level where his other qualities made him an elite reliever. A fluky drop in BABIP might be largely pushed aside in the projections, but a significant walk rate improvement generally will not be. Of pitchers who had a 4.50 ERA or better projection for 2018, Leclerc had the largest improvement in his 2019 projection, with a 1.10 ERA. Only four pitchers in this category saw a projection improvement of at least a run: Leclerc, Jose Alvarado, Reyes Moronta, and Jace Fry. The money isn’t exorbitant in any case, but to offer this long a contract to a two-year player indicates how strongly the Rangers are behind him.
|Player||2019 Projected ERA||2018 Projected ERA||Difference|
I’m speculating — I cannot prove this — that Leclerc’s profile is such that his performance is more sensitive to improvements and declines in overall control than the average reliever of this type. Only 29% of Leclerc’s third strikes were from his fastball, which, while not at the Chapman/Hicks level, still averaged over 95 mph and can hit the upper-90s regularly. His bread-and-butter is a fascinating chimera pitch that’s sort of a splitter, sort of a slider, sort of a cutter, and a little bit a changeup. This pitch is unusual in the sense that pitch classification algorithms have trouble even identifying what it is, describing the pitch as all of these depending on the source. I personally refer to it as a chlidder, but cut-changeup is more popular. Merrit Rohlfing talked about Leclerc’s pitch in a piece last year that goes deeper on the subject; I recommend checking it out for more on this pitch, which has intrigued me for a few years. Whatever you call it, the different velocities and intended use — functioning as either a breaking or change-of-pace pitch and frequently both — demand Leclerc to have a minimum of command of it.
Texas probably won’t be a good team in 2019, but they’re not as far away as some may think. The intention of the team was to undergo a kind of “skinny” rebuild during which they largely retained their core assets. Jurickson Profar is an exception, but he also was most valuable at positions where the Rangers already have players locked up long-term in Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor, both of whom have guaranteed contracts through the 2022 season with 2023 options. If some of the high-upside, low minors prospects pay off, I expect the Rangers to invest very aggressively in free agency; this is not a poor team.
The Rangers have been perfectly willing in the past to rotate closers depending on who they have on hand, and in the era of the modern closer (roughly from the late 70s, with the way Herman Franks used Bruce Sutter), Texas has only had one reliever (John Wetteland) lead the team in saves for at least three consecutive seasons. The team hasn’t even had the same save leader twice in a row since Joe Nathan in 2012-2013, and none of the more recent closers led the team in non-consecutive seasons in Grover Cleveland-esque fashion. That Texas plants their flag on Mt. Leclerc says a lot about who the team expects to finish off games when the Rangers become playoff-relevant again.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.