What’s behind Clase’s 2023 struggles?

7:09 AM UTC

It’s been a complicated season for the Guardians, and closer Emmanuel Clase hasn’t helped bring much clarity.

The reliever has taken on some difficult situations this season, considering Cleveland ranks second in the Majors in one-run games (50, trailing Cincinnati’s 56) after Thursday night’s 3-2 loss to the Angels at Angel Stadium. A 1-for-13 effort with runners in scoring position by the Guardians’ offense certainly didn’t help give Clase any breathing room when it came to the ninth inning.

That doesn’t mean Clase’s off the hook for blowing his 10th save of the season after this club held a one-run lead entering the final frame. It just demonstrates that more than one person can be blamed for the loss.

“How many times have you heard me say you try to spread it out where a mistake or something doesn’t cost you a game,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “And we did have opportunities, good opportunities, and we didn’t cash it. Saying that, we still have a lead and we just let it slip away. That one hurts.”

In 2022, a one-run lead would’ve felt comfortable. Sure, the team would’ve still preferred to spread things out, as Francona alluded to, but Clase’s dominance was on another level — so much so that his rollercoaster 2023 season has been thrown even more under the spotlight.

What’s different about Clase this year? Let’s take a look at three metrics that aren’t quite adding up:

Increased whiff rate on his cutter, but decreased whiff/chase rate overall

Seeing a jump from 22.5% to 26.3% in a whiff rate on a pitcher’s most-used offering would usually indicate improvement. But while his cutter may be drawing more swings and misses, his slider has not been nearly as effective, dropping from a 42.7% whiff rate in ’22 to 31.9% in ’23 entering Thursday.

Clase’s slider was lethal last year — a dramatic change of pace from the 100 mph cutter hitters were preparing to put in play. The spin rate on the slider has dropped, and Clase’s opponents’ average against the pitch has gone up nearly 100 points (from .119 in ’22 to .208 in ’23, entering Thursday).

The closer made hitters chase in 2022, as Statcast placed him in the elite 100th percentile with his 46.2% chase rate. But batters aren’t giving in the same way in ’23, as Clase has fallen to the 69th percentile (30.3%). If hitters aren’t chasing and Clase is falling behind in counts, he’s likely having to work in the zone too frequently, resulting in more hard hits put in play.

Same number of strikeouts with his cutter, but dramatically decreased Putaway %

Since Clase joined the Guardians in 2020, his Baseball Savant profile had yet to see a blue number … until now.

For those unfamiliar with the Statcast metrics, any stat that is highlighted in red means a pitcher is excelling. Anything in blue means the opposite. Clase has watched his strikeout numbers go from ranking in the 83rd percentile (28.4%) last season to well below average in the 40th percentile (22.1%) this season, despite having 33 strikeouts on his cutter in 2023 (the same as in ’22).

A side-by-side of Emmanuel Clase’s 2022 stats vs. 2023 stats (entering play Thursday, Sept. 7)

Putaway Percentage is the rate of two-strike pitches that result in a strikeout. Last season, he had a 29.7 Putaway Percentage on his slider and 28.4% on his cutter. This year, it sits at 21.6% for his slider and 20.5% on his cutter.

MLB saves leader, but double-digit blown saves

Fans who have sat through all 10 of Clase’s blown saves may find it hard to believe that he’s still the MLB saves leader with 38. He had a chance to inch closer to 40 on Thursday night before he gave up a double, two singles, an intentional walk and another base hit to hand the Angels a walk-off victory in the series opener.

Last year, he blew just four opportunities in an MLB-high 77 appearances. In 65 games this year, he’s already reached double digits. But 2022’s utter dominance resulted in 42 saves. And this year, he’s well within reach, with 21 games to play.

Clase’s season has been anything but simple. He has flashes of looking like the elite closer he was in ’22, but if he wants to get back to being that hurler consistently, he’s going to have to correct some of the red flags he’s demonstrated in ’23.

“Well, he’s had his moments this year,” Francona said. “That’s the way the game goes. They’re humans. That happens. He was so good last year. He’s been good this year. He’s just had some hiccups.”