Emmanuel Clase Is Leading the Best Bullpen in Baseball

The Guardians are running away with the AL Central, and their league-best bullpen, led by Emmanuel Clase, has played a major role in their early-season success.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 14: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Emmanuel Clase #48 of the Cleveland Guardians in action against the New York Yankees during game two of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium on October 14, 2022 in New York, New York. The Guardians defeated the Yankees 4-2 in ten innings. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Since his debut in 2019, Emmanuel Clase has emerged as one of MLB’s most reliable relievers.

Over his five years in the big leagues, the 26-year-old has a 1.82 ERA and has already recorded north of 130 saves.

Despite having a “down” season — by his standards — in 2023, Clase has bounced back and is leading the best bullpen in baseball for the AL Central-leading Cleveland Guardians.

Clase owns a 0.70 ERA over 38.1 innings, has walked just four hitters and allowed only one home run. He has also picked up an AL-best 25 saves and is holding hitters to a .157 batting average against.

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While he wasn’t awful last year, Clase did have a tough time securing wins in Cleveland. He put up a still-respectable 3.22 ERA but posted a 3-9 record while blowing a league-high 12 saves. So, his bounce back so far in 2024 has played a major role in the Guardians’ return to the top of the division.

However, Clase hasn’t been the only reliever worth watching in Cleveland this season. The Guardians’ bullpen is leading baseball in ERA (2.34), K-BB% (19.1%), opponent’s average against (.191), WHIP (1.01), FIP (2.94), and HR/9 (0.55).

Quite simply, we’re looking at one of the best relief corps in recent memory.

RelieverERAFIPK%BB%HR/9AVG AgainstIP
Emmanuel Clase0.721.9527.
Hunter Gaddis1.472.2826.
Cade Smith1.751.7635.
Scott Barlow3.663.7132.412.51.13.21232.0
Tim Herrin1.132.4325.
Pedro Avila2.403.1827.
Nick Sandlin3.494.1025.410.20.95.15728.1
Sam Hentges2.552.2530.
Guardians relievers to have thrown at least 15.0 innings. Stats in table updated prior to first pitch on June 25.

Clase is undoubtedly the headliner of the group, but the amount of options that manager Stephen Vogt can go to on a nightly basis has helped Cleveland cover for a starting pitching staff that has been decimated by injuries and ranks bottom five in MLB in innings pitched.

The Guardians have eight relievers who have thrown over 15.0 innings. Only two have an ERA north of 3.00, and none reach the 4.00 mark.

So, with all that said, let’s take a look at a few pitchers in the Cleveland bullpen who have burst onto the scene with the Guardians looking like they will be playing October baseball once again.

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Emmanuel Clase

We have already laid out just how successful Clase has been this year, but what has he done differently than a year ago?

We all know about Clase’s 100-mph cutter and just how dominant a pitch it is. Well this season, the right-hander has thrown the pitch more than he ever has. Over the past three years, Clase has ranged from 60% to 69.2% usage with his cutter, mixing in his slider 29.8% to 38.1% of the time.

In 2024, he is throwing his cutter 81.8% of the time and his slider 18.3% of the time, letting his best weapon do nearly all of the work.

Via Baseball Savant. Stats in graph updated prior to first pitch on June 25.

Essentially, adopting the Mariano Rivera approach of “here it is, try and hit it” has proven to work well, as batters are having a difficult time hitting the ball hard off Clase.

While Clase’s cutter isn’t generating insane whiff or strikeout rates, his ability to command the pitch makes all the difference when it comes to limiting damage.

Hunter Gaddis

In his third big league season, Gaddis is putting it all together.

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Like Clase, Gaddis isn’t posting the gaudy strikeout numbers you might expect from an elite reliever, but he is managing the quality of contact hitters are posting against him, rarely issuing free passes, and has only allowed one home run this season.

After mixing in five pitches through his first two seasons, the 26-year-old has cut his arsenal down to three and, really, has primarily relied on his slider and fastball.

Gaddis had never thrown his slider more than 31.7% of the time, but in 2024, it has become his most frequently thrown pitch, as 43.7% of his pitches have been sliders.

The pitch has gotten great results, as well. Gaddis is allowing just a .183 average and .267 slugging percentage against his slider while generating a 35.2% whiff rate with the breaking ball.

Meanwhile, Gaddis’ fastball has taken a 2.3-mph jump this season after he transitioned to the bullpen full-time. He originally broke into the majors as a starter.

His ability to shrink his arsenal and, as he said in April, “let it eat for an inning” couldn’t have worked out better for the Guardians.

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Cade Smith

Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Guardians in 2020, Smith cracked his first-ever Opening Day roster this March and hasn’t looked back.

The 25-year-old Canadian has dominated in a more traditional sense than Gaddis and Clase, racking up strikeouts at an elite rate.

Smith currently ranks seventh among AL relievers in strikeout rate (34.3%); of the six relievers ranked above him, only one has a lower walk rate. The righty ranks sixth among AL bullpen arms in K-BB% (27.9%), sharing the top of the leaderboard with some of baseball’s best pitchers (Mason Miller and Josh Hader are numbers one and two, respectively.)

Smith’s success has come from his fastball, which he throws 67.8% of the time.

Not only has it graded out as the most valuable four-seamer in MLB by run value (per Baseball Savant), but it’s tied with Tanner Houck’s slider as the top pitch in baseball.

Averaging 95.7 mph, Smith’s fastball has a 26.2% whiff rate and has held hitters to just a .161 average and .258 slugging percentage.

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Tim Herrin

All four of Cleveland’s most-used relievers are right-handed (Clase, Gaddis, Smith, and Scott Barlow), which has made Herrin’s breakout just that much more important.

The 27-year-old southpaw ranks third among all left-handed relievers in ERA (1.13) and is tied for second in appearances (36). He ranks sixth in batting average against (.164) and WHIP (0.94), and is tied for first in HR/9.

Herrin has yet to give up a home run this season, making him just one of four pitchers to have thrown at least 30 innings without letting a ball go over the fence.

With fellow lefty Sam Hentges beginning the season on the injured list, Herrin’s emergence has only made Vogt’s life easier in his first year at the helm in Cleveland.

Herrin made his MLB debut in 2023, pitching to a 5.53 ERA over 27.2 innings, struggling with some of the quality of contact that he gave up. But in 2024, he has reinvented himself, changing the way he attacks hitters:

Pitch2023 Usage2024 Usage
4-Seam Fastball41.8%25.4%
Herrin pitch usage by year, per Baseball Savant.

Picked by the Guardians in the 29th round of the 2019 draft, Herrin has turned to his curveball as his primary weapon in 2024. His curve has held opponents to a .146 average and .188 slugging against while generating a 36.6% whiff rate.

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While he throws the breaking pitch more often to righties than lefties, Herrin’s ability to get right-hander hitters out has been a large part of his success this season.

Of course, lefty relievers have had to evolve since the LOOGY days, but Herrin has done an excellent job of limiting damage in off-handed matchups.

While Clase, Gaddis, Smith, and Herrin have all been lights out this season, the likes of Barlow, Pedro Avila, Nick Sandlin (currently on the IL with back inflammation), and Hentges would be a pretty good foursome to have in the back of any other bullpen across MLB. And despite James Karinchak, Eli Morgan, and Trevor Stephan all sitting on the injured list, there might not be a better collection of late-game arms on one roster than the group assembled in Cleveland.