2019 Salary: $1.275 million
2020 Projection: $2.2 million
No pitcher in baseball was used as frequently as Alex Claudio this past year, for better or worse.
The light-throwing lefty appeared in more than half of the games the Brewers played this past year, stepping on the mound a league-leading 83 times. He excelled as a lefty specialist, holding left-handed batters to a .218/.301/.378 line and a .293 wOBA.
He ran into more problems when he had to face right-handers, though, with opponents’ lines jumping to .274/.357/.469 with a .344 wOBA against him when hitting from the right side. The main causes were more hits allowed (31 against righties, 26 against lefties) and more walks allowed (15 against righties, 9 against lefties) despite facing 7 fewer righties on the year.
The frequent appearances provided plenty of opportunity for fans to remember the times he faltered, but he also played a pretty significant role in bridging the gap between the starter and the back end of the bullpen -- rather than let a starter face a tough lefty a third time, Claudio would often be the choice to face that batter before Josh Hader or someone else would see him the final time.
When he faltered in that role or worked the team into a more difficult situation, the free bases were almost always the culprit. The walks to righties (15 unintentional in the 130 right-handed hitters he faced) were concerning, but often more palatable if he was working around a righty in a L-R-L sequence. The 9 walks and 6 hit batters among the 137 lefties he faced are more concerning, because you ideally would want your southpaw specialist to get left-handed batters out.
The control issues were puzzling because Claudio had actually shown good control with his unorthodox delivery throughout his career. Even when he struggled to a 4.48 ERA during his last year in Texas, his BB/9 was 1.7 — roughly what it was every full season of his career spanning from 2016 to 2018. In 2019 with the Brewers, it was 3.5. It’s possible that considering the small sample size — Claudio only covered 62 innings’ worth of outs despite his 83 appearances — that 2019 was an outlier and he’ll go back to controlling his baserunners better in 2020, in which case he’d become more valuable.
But there’s something else David Stearns might have to consider before making a decision on Claudio: the looming possibility of a three-batter minimum being imposed on relief pitchers in 2020. Stearns made a reference to needing to know what the rules are going to be next season before making any decisions this winter during his end-of-season postmortem, which was at least partially referring to bullpen construction (and possibly Claudio himself, or any other specialist).
Even at his rockiest this year, Claudio was a perfectly fine lefty specialist. His value changes quite a bit if he were required to pitch to at least three batters or finish an inning, and it would almost certainly mean he wouldn’t appear in 80+ games again in 2020. The impact of that possible rule change may end up being overblown, since Claudio is fairly capable of working around a right-handed hitter if he has to in the previously mentioned L-R-L scenario. But if there’s only one lefty in a sea of right-handers, Craig Counsell may be forced to look elsewhere.
That may be in the direction of someone like Brent Suter, who was one of the best relievers in baseball in September working in a multi-inning role. With Angel Perdomo added to the 40-man roster and Quintin Torres-Costa working his way back from Tommy John surgery, there may be other lefties in the organization capable of covering multiple innings in this possible new era of relief pitcher regulations, leaving Claudio on the outside looking in.
Considering the Brewers traded away a competitive balance draft pick to acquire Claudio, you would think Stearns would prefer not to cut bait on him after just one year, but roster construction may end up forcing his hand.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference