Over the Texas Rangers first seven playoff games this season, two things are true: they have won the ballgames and Jose Leclerc has recorded the final out. He is the first pitcher to ever do such a feat in playoff history. Over the last month, the baby-faced Leclerc has become the closer that the team needed all season long. Manager Bruce Bochy has confidence in the right-handed hurler from the Dominican Republic, and Leclerc has parlayed that into a history-setting playoff run to this point.
Leclerc's return to glory is somewhat surprising to many. He struggled at times to find the strike zone this year and because of that, found himself relinquished to mop-up duty. Much of the season Leclerc was pitching in less than stressful situations as Bochy and pitching coach Mike Maddux tried to help him regain his confidence. The organization knew that he had the ability, it was just getting him in a good head space along with him feeling well physically.
When baseball historians look back on Leclerc's 2023 regular season, the numbers will show a pitcher who had a fantastic year out of the bullpen for a playoff team. In 57 innings pitched, Leclerc had a 2.68 ERA, struck out 67, allowed only five home runs, but did walk 28. As is often the case, the numbers will not tell the whole story. His season has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows, both with his stuff and with his mental state on the mound.
Physically, Leclerc struggled some early on in the season. His velocity on his fastball was down slightly which made him try to aim the ball rather than just throwing it to his spot. Leclerc's four-seamer averaged 94.1mph in the Opening Day win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Compare that to the four-seamer that averaged 96.7mph yesterday in Game 2 of the ALCS. That is a significant uptick in the velo.
And that velocity isn't just coming because of playoff adrenaline. His four-seam fastball averaged two, to two and a half miles per hour more, later in the regular season than it did previously. It was speculated that Leclerc might not have been a hundred percent healthy to start the season, and these numbers appear to reflect just that.
Pitching against the best hitters in baseball in the highest leverage situations has to test a person mentally. It was clear that Leclerc lost his confidence early in the year, but Bochy played the long game and helped get him to where he is today. And where exactly is that?
Leclerc is closing in the playoffs for the hottest team in baseball. He had four saves during the entire regular season, and he already has three in the playoffs, including the first two games on the road in the ALCS. There is no higher leverage situation than closing a game in a hostile ballpark in the playoffs and Leclerc is shining in the role.
Watching Leclerc pitch is something to behold. While listening to the PitchCom device located in his hat, he seems to take in the sights and sounds of the park and crowd around him. Then as he gets ready to start his delivery, completely locks into the task at hand. Many relief pitchers have their little quirks, and his assassin-like approach is fascinating.
With the ALCS in full swing and the Rangers out in front, there is little doubt that Bochy will continue to ride Leclerc hard this postseason. The Rangers have longed for a legit closer in 2023, and by golly, they found one at the perfect time.