The group of the Texas Rangers fan base against the trade of Keone Kela couldn’t understand why a rebuilding team would ship out a promising young closer with two years left before free agency.
Their argument had some merit, but the case for finding a Kela deal was better.
What good is closer on a rebuild team? While cheap now, he wouldn’t be the next two years. He has a long injury history. He has a long history of disruptive behavior, though none had surfaced in the regular season.
Then, there was this: Jose Leclerc.
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He checks all of the positives Kela had, but is under club contractual control longer, has a better medical track record and hasn’t caused any problems with his teammates.
And since the Rangers traded Kela to the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 30, Leclerc has been perfect in his trial run as closer and continues to cement his place high on the list of most improved Rangers this season.
He might be No. 1.
“Very close to the top, just based on the second half was challenging but more so September last year,” manager Jeff Banister said. “There was some question going into the off-season and even into spring training where Jose would be.
“We knew physically where the stuff, the arm, there was never any question about that. Usability and confidence-wise, could we build him back up to the point to where you see know — a very low pulse rate, a little calmer on the mound, control the strike zone.”
Leclerc nailed down the Rangers’ 4-2 victory Wednesday against surging Oakland, stranding a runner a third with no outs by retiring the meat of the A’s lineup. That includes Khris Davis, the latest Rangers slayer who is tormenting them the way Vladimir Guerrero once did with the Los Angeles Angels.
The Rangers were off Thursday ahead of a three-game weekend series against the San Francisco Giants.
Davis tormented Leclerc on July 25 by hitting the go-ahead two-run homer in the ninth inning in an eventual Rangers loss at Globe Life Park. Leclerc has allowed only three hits and three walks in 11 scoreless inning since the Davis homer.
In the middle of that stretch was the Kela trade as well as the trade of Jake Diekman a day later. Though Banister said he would not be naming a closer, Leclerc has received every chance and has converted all six of them. In his eight innings as acting closer, he has allowed one hit (.040 opponents average).
His 2018 numbers are staggering, considering where he came from after last season. Leclerc is 2-3 with a 1.89 ERA in 47 2/3 innings, with 70 strikeouts, 22 walks, a 0.923 WHIP and a .138 opponents average. That ranks second in the American League to New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, and the only homer Leclerc has allowed was Davis homer last month.
Leclerc is being paid the league minimum this season.
Leclerc pitched to a 3.94 ERA last season and walked 40 batters in 45 2/3 innings. The turnaround has roots in winter ball over the winter in the Dominican Republic, but he can’t pinpoint any one thing mechanically that has made the difference.
“I think last year I was thinking too much — ‘If I do bad, I’m going to Triple A,’” said Leclerc, who was sent to Round Rock in April despite a 0.00 ERA. “This year, after the first couple days they sent me down, and I said, ‘Work hard to get back.’ That was my mind-set.”
The difference is in fastball command has made all the difference. His average velocity is 95.1 mph, and it has accounted for 47.6 percent of his pitches. But because more of them are strikes, he’s able to use his cut changeup more often (43.5 percent, up 18 percent from 2017) and get more chases on it.
“Right now, I feel more confident and I feel with my fastball more comfortable,” said Leclerc, who can’t be a free agent until 2023. “I think that’s the key from last year. I threw the fastball and I didn’t know where I was throwing it, and the other pitch was crazy. If I can’t throw the fastball for a strike, they’re not going to swing at the off-speed. I think everything came together. I don’t know what I’m doing different [mechanically] this year. I saw video, and everything’s the same.”
He hasn’t been alone. Banister praised pitching coach Doug Brocail and assistant pitching coach Dan Warthen for their work with Leclerc, who prior to being the closer was the bullpen’s go-to arm when trouble hit.
At one point, he, not Kela, was the reliever giving the other relievers a boost because of the way he was able to escape jam after jam. Rather than change his routine or his approach to the ninth inning, Leclerc has learned to not fix what isn’t broken.
“The first couple days I tried to change it,” he said. “But in my mind, I just say it’s like when I go in the seventh inning or eighth inning and try to do the same.”
He was a starter in the minors, and all pitchers at some point want to be starters. Now, Leclerc would like to be the Rangers’ full-time closer but said that he is going to absorb the rest of this season and let the bullpen pecking order shake out next spring.
“The bullpen guys told me when Diekman and Kela went, probably I’m going to be the closer, but I wasn’t thinking about that,” said Leclerc, who turns 25 in December. “It’s something good. I don’t know if that’s going to be my spot, but I’m going to try to enjoy it, no matter if they put me in the seventh or eighth inning next year. I’m going to enjoy this year.”