The Unique Beauty of Alex Claudio
Common sense says that Alex Claudio shouldn’t be good. Common sense says he shouldn’t even be a professional pitcher. He’s a kind of gawky 24-year-old Puerto Rican kid with an 85 mile per hour fastball. Certainly not the kind of profile which jumps off the screen and screams “Successful Major League Pitcher”. Yet here he is, 79.2 innings into his big league career with an ERA of 2.82 and coming off a season in which he was a key cog in a division winning bullpen.
To emphasize just what an outlier Claudio is, below is a complete list of the pitchers who pitched in the majors in 2016 with a slower average fastball.
A grand total of 10 pitchers. Two of those, R.A. Dickey and Steven Wright, are knuckleballers so for all intents and purposes, we can throw them out. Two more, Ben Rowen and Brad Ziegler, are submariners which we can do the same with. That leaves six non-bit pitchers with fastballs slower than Alex Claudio’s, none of whom came close to his level of success.
In fact, to find the last time a “normal” pitcher with a fastball that slow had both an ERA and FIP under 3.00 in 50 or more innings, you’d have to go all the way back to 2009. Want the last one by someone not named Trevor Hoffman? Well, that would be Steve Reed in 2002. Those are the only two pitchers besides Claudio to accomplish the feat since the turn of the century.
So what allows the former 27th round pick to be such a rarity? Well, there’s three main reasons: deception in his delivery, a heavy groundball tendency, one of the most ridiculous changeups in baseball. Let’s take a look at each of these elements.
What’s above is the rare delivery which can be qualified as both deceptive and easily repeatable. Claudio comes set with a little shimmy, his back already at the angle of his release. Once he starts into his motion, it’s just a quick low kick and a sidearm release. There’s really not much going on with the delivery, yet the southpaw still presents the batter with plenty to look at and an irregular arm angle.
Claudio’s groundball tendencies are nothing new. Going back to when he began full-season baseball in 2013, he has never posted a groundball rate below 58%. His big-league percentage mirrors his minor league numbers at a career 59.9% rate. Among pitchers with 50 innings a year ago, Claudio’s 62.6% ranked seventh.
These strong numbers stem almost solely from one pitch – his sinker. Now with a 200 pitch minimum, Claudio’s sinker ranked fourth in baseball in horizontal movement in 2016 according to PITCHf/x. When taking solely the sinker into account, the 6’3″ lefty induced over 15 grounders per fly ball last season.
It’s difficult to create value with an 85 mph fastball, yet Claudio manages to do just that due not only to movement but to an ability to avoid the upper reaches of the zone. The Puerto Rican World Baseball Classic representative likes to run the pitch in on lefties and tails it away against righties, with the common denominator here being nearly every pitch at the belt or below. It would be nice for the middle part of the zone to lean a bit more Democrat, but Claudio avoids the real disaster point for both soft-tossers and sinker-ballers – the upper third.
It’s hard to fully describe Claudio’s changeup. It doesn’t look like other changeups. In his minor league days, the offering became something of folklore. Only Steve Johnson, AJ Griffin, and Steven Wright threw pitches with a lower average velocity in 2016 – all curveballs. Like its sinker counterpart, the pitch ranks top five among its kind in horizontal movement. To really demonstrate, visuals are needed.
If those aren’t enough for you, here’s 1:13 of nothing but Claudio changes from Nathaniel Stoltz.
It’s a fun pitch. It’s a unique pitch. And it’s really, really good. Claudio’s changeup results in whiffs on over 16% of the occasions he throws it and on over 32% of the occasions a batter swings at it.
Prior to the 2016 season, Beyond the Box Score wrote an article showing the average velo gaps, or difference between average velocities, of different pitches. Since 2007, the average gap between fastballs and changeups was 7.7 mph. Scott Kazmir came in with the highest gap at a 15.3 mph difference. Then in 2016, even with the 11th slowest fastball in the league, Claudio’s stood at 18.1 mph.
There really is no comparison for Alex Claudio. No one has his changeup, few match his groundball rate, and almost no one throws less gas. And as different and outside the box as he is, to this point not many have matched his success, either.