Though it wasn’t Wilson Ramos or Corey Kluber, the Milwaukee Brewers made an acquisition Thursday, right before the MLB Winter Meetings in Las Vegas shut down. The Brewers sent their Competitive Balance Round A pick (No. 40 overall) in next year’s draft for Alex Claudio, a left-handed reliever who has pitched for the Texas Rangers in each of his five major league seasons. By acquiring Claudio, the Brewers strengthen an already elite bullpen.
But who exactly is Alex Claudio?
Let’s start by looking at his pitching profile. If you go to his player page on, say, FanGraphs, you’ll notice two things immediately; he doesn’t strike anyone out and he’s a ground-ball god. You’ll also probably see the 4.48 ERA he posted in 2018, but we’ll get to that silly statistic in a bit.
Claudio relies heavily on his sinker — as do most ground-ball pitchers — by throwing it over 50 percent of the time. He also features a changeup and mixes in a slider on occasion, but in general, he’s a sinker hurler. Regardless, here’s what his changeup is capable of looking like when it’s on its game.
Check out this ultra slow-motion shot of Alex Claudio’s superb Changeup from last night’s game pic.twitter.com/VfUPevtobs
— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) April 21, 2017
Claudio’s changeup and slider generate significantly more swings and misses per swing than his sinker, so one may ask why he doesn’t throw those two pitches more often? Well, it’s because Claudio — as insane as this sounds in (basically) 2019 — doesn’t care about strikeouts. He doesn’t need whiffs to be successful. That’s not his game. His goal is forcing ground balls that his infielders can turn into outs, and he’s done that better than almost anyone in baseball. Since 2016 there have been 57 relievers who have recorded at least 170 innings. Claudio ranks second on that list in ground-ball rate. His 63.7 GB% trails only Brad Ziegler over that time period. He expects to get outs with his ground balls, and with the way the Brewers shift their infield defense, he’s likely to see his outs surge.
Now let’s get back to his 2018 ERA. In terms of ERA, Claudio had his worse season of his career last year, despite generating ground balls at a 60 percent clip. What happened? But more importantly, why shouldn’t Brewers fans be worried about this?
The table displays Claudio’s ERA and FIP in each of his last three seasons. I picked Earned Run Average because it shows — though flawed — the end result of a pitcher’s season and that’s important. And I picked Fielding Independent Pitching because it paints a more accurate picture than ERA. The table also shows his batting average on balls in play, which has the ability to demonstrate certain types of luck.
Obviously, the left-hander suffered some awful batted-ball luck in 2018. Of every qualified reliever last season — 151 pitchers in all — Claudio’s .366 BABIP allowed was the third-highest mark. That’s enough proof right there to know there’s just no way that’s sustainable. Now, this isn’t an exact science, and his high BABIP from 2018, though likely, isn’t guaranteed to drop. There’s reasons other than luck for his BABIP rise, like the fact his ground-ball rate dropped by six percent from 2017, or that his defense behind him was one of the worst in baseball in terms of Defensive Runs Saved. Luckily, Milwaukee’s defense is far superior in that category, so that should help Claudio’s numbers immediately. While there are credible factors that contributed to his .366 BABIP, I think it’s safe to say that luck was the biggest culprit.
With the exits of Dan Jennings and Xavier Cedeno from the Brewers bullpen, the team was in search for a southpaw who could eat innings. Claudio is, if nothing else, an innings eater. He’s also a significant upgrade over Jennings, who was left off the playoff roster in October. Not to mention, the Brewers have control over Claudio until 2021, which was likely very appealing to general manager David Stearns.
Claudio isn’t a flashy acquisition and the move isn’t going to make headlines. But neither did the signing of Jhoulys Chacin last December and look how that turned out.