Coming into Spring Training, for the Rangers there was speculation about who could fill any number of holes in the lineup or in the bullpen. However, one part of the Rangers team has been quiet: the closer role. It’s thought that 26-year-old José Leclerc has that spot wrapped up, but how did we get here? Before last season, the Rangers extended José Leclerc to four years/$14.75 million with options in 2023 and 2024. There were questions whether a struggling campaign in 2019 for José came from the contract or possibly tipping his pitches. It was a rocky road for Leclerc last season.
The Rangers started the season with Leclerc as their primary closer, but after a couple of blown saves in April and three outings of two or more runs, Chris Woodward opted to pass the closer’s role to veteran Shawn Kelley and Leclerc became a setup man in the bullpen. Woody brought Leclerc back to the closer role in late July/early August and José finished the season closing games.
Woodward talked multiple times that he felt it was the mental part of the role where LeClerc struggled, especially when he coughed up a ninth-inning lead. The Rangers staff spoke about how dedicated José is on a day-in and day-out basis, and one bad outing means he’s putting the mental pressure on himself, which amplifies his struggles. “He feels like he’s letting everyone around him down.” Chris Woodward said back last May when the Rangers demoted LeClerc out of the closer role. “He works harder than anybody; he cares more than anybody. He wants to be the guy and he wants to win more than anybody. It’s a beautiful thing, but it rips your soul out.”
I got a sense of the pressure lifted after Leclerc saved his first game when the Rangers brought him back to the closer role. It was August 2nd against the Tigers. José got Tigers Jeimer Candelario to ground out to first to end the game, an outing where Leclerc allowed two runs in a three-run game. José proceeded to chunk the baseball deep to right field. The next day the entire buzz in the clubhouse was about how far the ball went. Guys like Shawn Kelley (who did something similar a month later against the Athletics) and Rangers broadcaster CJ Nitkowski spoke jokingly about the exit velocity, if the ball cleared the park, and the launch angle. After that moment, LeClerc went eight out of nine in save chances and had fifteen scoreless outings (twenty outings total) to end the last two months of the season.
jose leclerc letting out some frustration — i have that ball going 477ft with an exit velo of 112mph pic.twitter.com/Czq80i60u4
— mike taddow (@taddmike) August 3, 2019
What to expect in 2020 for José Leclerc?
There’s not a doubt in my mind that Lecerc starts the season as the Rangers closer (barring any injuries or astonishing trades). I think it’ll be a good season for José Leclerc. I wouldn’t predict the same as the 2018 end of season stretch where he finished with 21 straight scoreless innings to close out the year, but after he dealt with the mental pressure, I think Leclerc is a more substantial presence on the mound. He’s now able to deal with the adversity of a poor outing to gain more consistency when he takes the hill. If José can build off a successful final two months of the year, he could sneak in as an All-Star reliever, but I don’t think he’s quite there yet.
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