To be honest, at this point last year, I knew of Preston Claiborne but didn't know who he was. In 2012, the right-handed reliever pitched to a 2.22 ERA with Double-A Trenton before earning a promotion to Triple-A and posting a 4.05 ERA in 33.1 innings. Mediocre strikeout and walk rates failed to make him a standout pitcher in a system that has produced some statistical flamboyant relief pitchers of late. With Mark Montgomery, Dellin Betances, Joba Chamberlain, David Aardsma, and Shawn Kelley trying out for a loaded bullpen last season, there was no reason to know who Claiborne was.
After starting the season in the minors, Claiborne became the Yankees' next best option after Chamberlain hit the disabled list in early-May. The reliever was extremely productive in his first few outing, pitching a clean 9.0 innings in 7 appearances before giving up his first run. In fact, in his first 37 relief appearances, Claiborne pitched to a 2.78 ERA in 45.1 innings. With a roster crunch ahead of them, the team optioned him down twice in late August, until the rosters expanded in September. The reliever wasn't nearly as effective when he returned, pitching just 5.0 innings in his last 7 games in September, and giving up 9 runs in the process.
In the last month of the season, Claiborne showed a significant decrease in velocity. Where his four-seam and sinker averaged around 93 mph all year long, the righty averaged just 91.5 mph in September. Likewise, the movement on his out pitches dropped, with his slider losing about an inch of vertical rise and his changeup losing around 3 inches. Where he stood out as an effective ground ball pitcher in his first 45.1 innings, Claiborne didn't earn a single ground ball on 49 fastballs thrown in that last month, batters were teeing off on the pitch.
The small sample size of 5.0 innings in September turned a brilliant rookie season into a very average one. Given what we saw from Claiborne in the minors, it's hard to tell what kind of pitcher he is, but it certainly looks like he hit a wall or suffered an injury at the end of 2013.
So far, this spring, Claiborne has looked solid, going 4.0 innings in 4 games, allowing 5 hits and earning 5 strikeouts with no walks. His command and velocity seem to be back, but he's yet to show that he can control the hits which plagued him at the end of last season. With Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, and Boone Logan off the 2014 club, Claiborne has a good chance of making the team, and he may even be in consideration for some high-leverage situations.
Due to his ordinary strikeout and walk rates, no projection system really loves him. FIP also had him extremely close to his 2013 performance, a 4.14 FIP compared to his 4.11 ERA. Yet a lot of these numbers are weighted down by his poor September, and once taken into consideration that his velocity and pitch movement showed signs of regression, the numbers in these performances should be taken with some suspicion. Overall, I don't believe that he'll be as effective as he was in his first 45.1 innings in 2013, as the results did look lucky, but I also don't believe we'll see him struggle as much as he did in September. I'll put his ERA at 3.50 in 2014, and even give him a few holds as he earns a couple appearances in the 8th inning.