How Jose Leclerc became vital to Rangers' bullpen!
ARLINGTON -- The Rangers are not developing a young starting pitcher at the major league level this season, a black mark on the rebuilding process.
They are doing something almost as difficult: nurturing two linchpin relievers in their mid-20s. Bullpens are volatile from season to season, but right-handers Keone Kela and Jose Leclerc have shown they can be foundation pieces for the future.
Kela, 25, has converted all 20 save chances with the Rangers, a praiseworthy feat.
Leclerc, 24, has cleared the path for Kela, handling more hazardous relief situations according to one bullpen metric.
Baseballreference.com measures the degree of difficulty of the situation in which relievers enter through its leverage index. The higher the leverage index, the more difficult the moment.
Leclerc has been used in a team-high 16 high-leverage situations, two more than Kela. Getting the 27th out is a feat few can handle. Leclerc has had a significant role in the coming together of the bullpen.
The bullpen goes into Friday's series opener against the Chicago White Sox at Globe Life Park at 10-4 with 14 saves in 17 chances and a 2.61 ERA since May 18. The Rangers are 19-18 in that span. They could not have done this without Leclerc.
"I guarantee if you asked the other guys, they'd say they've been feeding off him," pitching coach Doug Brocail said. "He's been phenomenal. He's held the lead and handed it off to Keone. He's pitched two innings until we get the lead. He's done it all."
Leclerc serves as a "bridge," getting leads through the sixth to eighth innings. He opened the season in a sixth-inning role but has worked his way into the seventh and eighth by earning the trust of manager Jeff Banister.
Leclerc is the bullpen minesweeper. He has the special ability to enter during an inning with runners on the bases and limit the damage. Leclerc has allowed only four of 28 inherited runners to score, tying him for the fourth-best rate among major leaguers with at least 20 inherited runners.
"I feel confident," Leclerc said. "Last year, maybe I was a little nervous in those situations. This year, I believe if I make my pitches, I can get the outs."
Leclerc has swing-and-miss stuff, vital for a late-innings reliever. The more balls put in play, the greater the chance of something bad happening.
Leclerc has a 39.0 percent swing-and-miss-rate, sixth-highest among major leaguers with 25 innings. To put that number into perspective, New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman has a 39.1 percent rate.
Leclerc relies on two pitches: a 95-mph fastball, and a funky "cut" changeup that has the movement of a slider at lower velocity.
Brocail and assistant pitching coach Dan Warthen have seen about one million pitches during a combined 80 years in the game. The Leclerc changeup fools even them at times.
Both thought Leclerc recently got a key out with a rarely seen curveball. No, Leclerc said. It was the changeup. He can make that do devilish things.
"You go out in the baseball world and say, 'Who's Jose Leclerc?'" Brocail said. "You know the people that know him? Every hitter that has faced him.
"He's got it all wrapped into one. Watching other teams and seeing who they have, this kid could be closing somewhere."
Kela is the Rangers' unquestioned closer, a potential All-Star next month. It takes more than one reliever to build a bullpen. The Rangers have two at a young stage of their careers.
Bush update: Right-hander Matt Bush received a stem-cell injection for his ailing right elbow. If the treatment does not take, Bush could face the second Tommy John surgery of his career. He had the surgery in 2007.