Cleveland Guardians: A look at the rise of closer Emmanuel Clase
It looks like the Cleveland Guardians have found their closer of the future in Emmanuel Clase, so how did both sides get to this point?
Emmanuel Clase crashed onto the scene in 2021 with high expectations in Cleveland’s bullpen. Acquired in a trade for one of the team’s most beloved talents of the 21st century (two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber) and subjected to a suspension that ate up his 2020 season, Clase came into last year with hype, a potentially high ceiling, and a couple of question marks.
Thankfully for Cleveland, he lived up to expectations, and looks to anchor the back of the bullpen for the foreseeable future. Let’s take a look at how the Guardians closer ended up where he is and what this coming season could hold for him.
Emmanuel Clase: From Free Agency to Cleveland
Clase was signed as a free agent in 2015 by the San Diego Padres organization. In 2018, he would be traded to the Texas Rangers organization and would be assigned to the teams short-season affiliate, the Spokane Indians. He would become an All-Star for Spokane, and would be promoted to the Advanced-A Down East Wood Ducks in 2019.
Clase would start the season going seven scoreless innings over six appearances, while logging 11 strikeouts against four hits and only one walk. He would quickly be promoted to the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders in late April, where he would continue to pitch well. Over the next couple of months leading to his August call-up to the Rangers, Clase would log a 3.35 ERA over 33 appearances and 37.2 innings, while averaging nearly five strikeouts for each walk surrendered.
By August, Texas would call Clase up directly from Double-A to the big-league club. With the Rangers, he would appear in 21 games during the 2019 season, and would sport a 2.31 ERA in his first turn in the majors. His cutter immediately garnered attention, as his average velocity on the pitch clocked in at 99.2 MPH. Clase continued to maintain good command over his pitches, only allowing six walks in his time with the Rangers in 2019.
By the end of the 2019 season, fans of Texas likely thought they had found a potential closer of the future in Clase. His dynamic cutter, paired with a developing slider, made him the potential linchpin of the Ranger’s bullpen for years to come. That was the case, at least, until Texas made a headline-grabbing move to acquire two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber from the Cleveland Indians. Many Cleveland fans bemoaned the move of the fan-favorite, but there would be no imagining the massive return coming to Northeast Ohio versus the lot the Rangers unknowingly tied themselves to.
The 2020 season was a shortened blurb due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and when baseball finally got rolling in late July, the Indians were without their prized piece from the trade that sent away a Cy Young winner. Clase failed a PED test in May before the season was underway, and the 80-game suspension completely wiped out his 2020 campaign. Unfortunately, on Texas’s side of things, the trade of a dynamic young arm (and Delino DeShields Jr.) netted them a single inning of Cy Young brilliance before Corey Kluber would lose his season to a torn teres major in his shoulder.
For a trade that had potentially huge implications for both teams involved, 2020 ended up being a wash that left a bad tase in everyone’s mouth. However, 2021 would be a far different story.
The 2021 Season and Emmanuel Clase’s Much-Anticipated Breakout
Coming into the 2021 season, there were many questions about who would assume the closer’s role with the waiving of Brad Hand in the offseason. Discussions between Clase (with question marks coming off of a suspension) and James Karinchak (the established curveball wizard) peppered spring training headlines, and Cleveland would ultimately start the season in a dual-closer configuration. As the season began to wear on through the early months, Clase began taking a more dominant share of the ninth-inning work, eventually securing the role as Karinchak began to fall apart through the midway point of the year.
Looking at Clase’s numbers through the 2021 campaign, it is not hard to understand how he ultimately ended up as the closer. On the year, he covered 69.2 innings, while converting 24 saves in 29 opportunities. He struck out 74 batters against 16 walks, for a K/BB ratio of 4.63. Clase managed a stellar 1.29 ERA and a WHIP of 0.96.
All in all, the statistics speak for themselves, but where you can truly see Clase’s dominance from last season is when you start comparing him to the rest of baseball. According to Baseball Savant, in 2021 Clase ranked in the 99th percentile or higher among pitchers in xERA (expected ERA), xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average), chase rate, barrel percentage, and fastball velocity. He ranked in the 91st percentile and up in four other statistical categories as well.
All of the data above strongly alludes to the fact that Clase is one of the most difficult pitchers to handle in all of Major League Baseball. His cut fastball/slider arsenal allows him to consistently throw pitches that utilize sheer velocity, but also feature significant movement on their way to the plate. Clase is not the most strikeout-heavy pitcher when examining his career stats, but he makes up for it with his cutter ripping away from his throwing arm at an average of 100.2 mph, while his slider averages 91.9 mph with considerable run and drop.
Clase used both pitches to attack hitters in the bottom half of the zone, while still being able to elevate the cutter and blow hitters away. He can also generate loads of weak contact off of the movement each offering creates, giving him multiple modes for manufacturing outs. Pairing two plus-pitches that come out of basically the same arm slot makes it nearly impossible for hitters to accurately barrel up what Clase offers. Combine the velocity, movement, and command, and you have a potent pitching trifecta that many major-league hitters do not want to deal with in the ninth inning of a tight ballgame.
By the end of 2021, Clase had had a season to remember. Not only had he become a premier closer in Major League Baseball, but he also finished 5th in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. He was also named the AL Reliever of the Month in August, and would be named to MLB Pipeline’s All-Rookie First Team. The accolades certainly fit with the pitching prowess and statistical brilliance that he put on display for Cleveland during the 2021 campaign.
Thoughts on 2022 and Beyond
Clase will go into 2022 as the undisputed closer for the Cleveland Guardians. Barring some kind of catastrophic regression or injury, he stands to be among baseball’s best backend pieces for a second-straight year.
Given that Clase will only be 24 during the 2022 season, it stands to reason that he could see even more progression in his skillset. He saw jumps in velocity from 2019 to 2021, and could certainly see a further uptick as he starts to touch his prime years. Clase could also see even more refinement in his already strong command, posing an even larger threat to hitters trying to get their clubs back into ballgames against the backend of Cleveland’s bullpen. If James Karinchak can regain his footing at the major-league level, he and Clase could form one of the most wicked 1-2 punches of any bullpen in baseball.
Expectations in the coming season will be high for Clase, as he has already showcased that he can handle the bright lights of the ninth inning. If 2021 was any indication, 2022 has the potential to see the young flamethrower ascend into becoming one of the best closers (if not the best) in baseball. As long as things continue along their current progression, it is likely Cleveland will have one of baseball’s best lockdown closers in tow for the foreseeable future.