CLEVELAND — Seconds after the ball leaves Emmanuel Clase’s hand and streaks toward home plate, the eyes of everyone in Progressive Field quickly turn to the ballpark’s video scoreboard to see what pitch he threw and how fast it went.
101 mph cutter. 100 mph fastball. 91 mph slider.
“It’s unfair,” Indians starter Logan Allen said after watching Clase mow down the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. “It definitely makes you think: How do people hit him?”
Eight games into a new season, the Indians, who began 2021 with uncertainty in the back end of their bullpen, may have something special in Clase, a harder-than-hard-throwing right-hander from the Dominican Republic who arrived in a 2019 trade from Texas and missed last season due to a drug suspension.
Clase (pronounced clas-AY’) announced his arrival last week when his first pitch for the Indians registered at 101.3 mph — the fastest thrown by a Cleveland pitcher since the speed began being tracked regularly in 2008.
Since then, he has unleased 35 more pitches over 100 mph, the most in the majors this season and more than all Indians pitchers combined over the past 13 years.
“I mean, he’s got a slider that’s faster than most people’s fastballs,” Indians reliever Bryan Shaw said. “He’s obviously stupidly good. He’s got a really good arm. He’s got command of his pitches, obviously.”
And that may be the most impressive thing about Clase, who in addition to throwing the ball hard, throws it accurately.
He’s the anti-“Wild Thing.”
When using advanced baseball analytics, Clase’s whiff and chase rates are above the 94th percentile. By more traditional statistics, he has allowed one hit in four innings with six strikeouts. After giving up a one-out single in the ninth Sunday, Clase induced a game-ending double play for his second save to complete Cleveland’s three-game sweep.
Manager Terry Francona hasn’t formally named Clase his closer.
It goes without saying the 23-year-old Clase has grabbed the job.
“I love the way he attacks,” Francona said. “I made a comment in spring training that he may have thrown too many strikes. And if that’s a problem, we can deal with that. His future and present are really bright.”
It’s only happened twice at Progressive Field, but when the bullpen door opens and Clase emerges and heads toward the mound, there’s a buzz in the ballpark.
There’s one in the dugout, too.
“It’s something that kind of fires me up, like, ‘Here comes the big guy,’” slugger Franmil Reyes said. “There’s no chance they’re getting anything on this guy.”
The Tigers didn’t have much success against him, and Detroit manager A.J. Hinch came away impressed by Clase’s velocity and location.
“When he can be around that strike zone and make the hitter defensive from the get-go, he can be really electric,” Hinch said. “You never know how a guy is going to respond pitching late in games. But you know he’s going to bring 100 mph in his back pocket every time with some cut action, and the hitter’s probably going to be uncomfortable from the outset.”
Clase was something of a mystery to the Indians, who acquired him from the Rangers in return for two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. He was expected to have a significant role last season, but Clase suffered a minor neck injury in camp before being suspended 80 games for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
The MLB ban was revised to cover the entire 60-game 2020 season. And while the radar gun says otherwise, Clase said it’s been challenging to get back up to speed.
“It wasn’t easy to just jump back in,” Clase said through Indians interpreter Agustin Rivero. “But I worked really hard for this. I prepared for this, and I was focusing on getting to that point where I was ready to compete.”
After the Indians decided not to re-sign All-Star closer Brad Hand this winter, it wasn’t clear who Francona would turn to finish games.
There remain several options — James Karinchak, Nick Wittgren and Shaw can all close — if Clase has any setbacks, but for the time being he’s in control.
Shaw, who returned to Cleveland after leaving as a free agent in 2017, believes Clase has only scratched the surface of his potential.
“He obviously throws a cutter like me and it took me a long time, you know, in my early days I would just grab it, throw it and it would move,” Shaw said. “As I got older and as I got more understanding of the pitching mechanics side of things with pitch development and all that kind of stuff, I was able to manipulate a little more to have more run, less run, different movements.
“He’s going to eventually learn that same thing. For now, I wouldn’t change a thing he’s doing.”