Raise your hand if you knew who Preston Claiborne was before this season. Somewhere behind Mark Montgomery, Branden Pinder, Tommy Kahnle, and Nick Goody, Preston Claiborne silently dominated the top ranks of the Yankees' farm system last year. Between Double-A and Triple-A, Claiborne posted a 2.96 ERA and respectively a 24.6 and 21.0 K%. While also limiting hits, Claiborne's only weakness was a somewhat high walk rate, averaging a 10.7 BB% in 2012. Following an impressive Spring Training, the reliever returned to Scranton earlier this year and showed some vast improvements in his control. Over 10.1 innings with the Rail Riders, Claiborne allowed just 1 walk while maintaining his career K%. He earned a call up on May 3rd to replace Joba Chamberlain, and in his first major league appearance on May 5th pitched 2.0 hitless innings against the Athletics.
Overall, Claiborne has pitched 16.1 major league innings, allowed just 12 hits, 1 run (off a home run from Matt Wieters), and earned 13 strike outs. Most impressive has been his control, and after dealing with control issues in the past, the right-hander has yet to allow a walk this season.
Claiborne's repertoire sports four different pitches. He has two fastballs (a four-seam and a sinker), a breaking pitch (a slider), and an offspeed pitch (a changeup). His fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90's and tops out at 96 mph, and his changeup and slider are both decent out pitches that he's willing to use against both sided hitters. The combination of a strong four-seam and sinker has allowed him to generate both ground balls and fly balls with ease and may be a key factor in his low hit percentages.
On the strength of his fastballs, Claiborne has found the ability to succeed at the major league level, and if his ability to command the strike zone continues, he'll likely remain in the Bronx as he continues to see middle inning work. Unlike late-inning relievers, David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain for example, Claiborne has not yet shown a true plus out pitch, and a lower ability to draw a strike out may be a deciding factor in his status as a high or low leverage reliever. Of course, you don't necessarily need a put away slider or curveball to succeed, and you don't have to look any further than Mariano Rivera to see relievers who have succeeded with a more contact oriented approach. One could argue that it's Rivera's confidence on the mound that is more important to his success, and that's something you might find in Claiborne as well.
“It’s just a matter of confidence in my own stuff and ability,” Claiborne said. “There were times year to year that my confidence suffered, but I’ve learned over the years to flush things. Every time I go out there I don’t think about what happened in the past. I can only control the next pitch.”
Of course, this isn't a direct comparison of the 25 year old to the great Mariano Rivera. Claiborne still has plenty of question marks, but early signs show an economical reliever with a great ability to attack the zone. If you didn't know his name last year, you certainly know it now, and that's something this organization desperately needs if they want this team to get any younger.