In many ways, Dominic Leone was emblematic of everything that was right about the Seattle Mariner bullpen in 2014. A 16th round pick out of Clemson in just 2012, he debuted a few days after his 22nd birthday, with most Mariner faithful saying, "who?". And that day, April 6th, Leone worked his first inning seeing his fastball top out at 96.5 mph, and he'd never look back, as they say.
By season's end, Leone boasted a 26% strikeout rate, a stingy 2.17 ERA, giving up just 52 hits in his 66.1 innings pitched, striking out more than a batter per inning. Leone popped the glove with an average 95.33 mph fastball, complemented by a vicious slider, which held opponents to a .100 batting average and .133 slugging percentage. In a group full of oddballs and outcasts, the Mariners bullpen led the league with a 2.60 ERA and the highest strand rate in baseball, leaving would-be runners on base over 80% of the time. Still just a kid with one year under his belt after making the jump from AA to the majors, Dominic Leone was one of the better relievers in baseball. And he was ours.
Today, Leone is rather emblematic of everything that is wrong with the Seattle Mariner bullpen.
Collectively, this group has an ERA over four. Their K/9 rate ranks 25th. Their BB/9 rate ranks second to last. And although we're only talking about fewer than 200 pitches thrown, Leone has been a major contributor to this.
Leone currently has a 5.40 ERA (5.92 FIP). His 26% strikeout rate and 9% walk rate has turned into a 10% strikeout rate and a 15% walk rate. Under normal circumstances (which would include being an objective Mariner fan, which is nearly impossible when they're 11-17) I would always lean on the small sample size and figure this is just a stretch of rotten luck. And maybe it is. Hopefully it is. It is. Is it?
Then you look just a teensy bit deeper, and you see this:
If you trust Brooks Baseball, the zip on his fastball is off a full mile per hour, from 95.3 to 94.3. And even in that small sample up there, if you had to draw a trend line, it ain't going up. Now that's not particularly damning, and I'm sure everything is fine with his slider oh crap.
So his dominant slider from 2014 isn't, well, sliding. Thrown at an average of 84 mph in 2014, his slider used to have about an inch and a half of vertical break and we already know the results. This season, he's thrown it 66 times at an average velocity of 82 mph with about a half inch of vertical break. It has struck out exactly three batters, and opposing hitters are peppering it for a .333 batting average and .556 slugging percentage. Last season, it generated over 46% whiffs per swing and allowed only a 14% line drive rate, and this season that's down to a 39% whiff per swing and 27% line drive rate. I could go on, but the Xanax isn't within arm's reach.
Ok, look this easily could be a mechanical tweak away from being absolutely nothing. Or maybe it's already absolutely nothing. But so far, the 2014 Dominic Leone just hasn't shown up, and maybe he's just hanging out with the 2014 Danny Farquhar and the 2014 Fernando Rodney and they're yukking it up about old times and swilling sarsaparilla. But a big part of righting this ship is going to be the bullpen, and it just might have to start with Dominic Leone.