When the Mariners announced their reunion with Wade LeBlanc near the end of spring training, many thought he was not long for the roster. Seattle had planned on going with a four-man rotation for the first two weeks of the year, LeBlanc fit as a long reliever or mop-up guy. He had spent 2017 as a serviceable Swiss Army reliever with the Pirates, and presented a more established option than the likes of Casey Lawrence. In all, though, not a guy who you’d expect to see throw a lot of innings, barring tragedy.
Indeed, he saw scant action in April, getting his first action in the fifth game of the season - a very sad blowout in San Francisco that yours truly was in attendance for. LeBlanc threw just 13.2 perfectly acceptable innings across five April outings, all Mariner losses and all relatively low-leverage spots. Despite getting credit from his teammates for keeping the bullpen rested in Chicago on the 23rd, he was often the forgotten man, and speculation was he would be gone after Erasmo Ramírez came off the DL.
Fast forward a few weeks, though, and Erasmo and his hilarious 11.93 FIP are back on the DL. LeBlanc has since usurped that rotation spot, and he’s seized his chance with gusto. Through four starts, Wade has put up an excellent 3.24 FIP across just over twenty innings while running a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.5/1. He’s only cracked the sixth inning mark once, and hasn’t factored into a decision yet, but LeBlanc has put up unquestionably good results.
Given LeBlanc’s solid results in spite of poor peripherals in his first time with the M’s, it’s understandable to feel skeptical about his success going forward. While his margin for error remains very thin, early evidence shows that he may have made some legitimate improvements.
Since sliding into the rotation, Wade has seen a slight uptick in velocity on all of his pitches, and started mixing in his loopy curve more often:
In 2016, LeBlanc’s decent results were overshadowed by a monstrous home run problem. Serving up fourteen in exactly fifty innings, opposing hitters ran an ISO of .287 against him - a mark which would have been good for second in all of baseball had that been a single qualified player. Although you could still point to his great walk rate and a career-high 19.4% HR/FB as signs of bad luck, no amount of limiting walks can make up for such an advanced case of dingeritis.
The good news is that so far in 2018, Wade’s dingeritis has been cured! He’s given up just four total on the year, with two of those as a starter - in fact, the only times a run has scored in a LeBlanc outing has been on a long ball. His overall ISO against has dropped more than 160 points from 2016 to .123, and as a starter, that mark is even better at just a teeny .092.
Through all this, LeBlanc remains an extreme fly-ball pitcher, with the eleven-point spike in GB% in 2017 looking more and more like a one-off. Only about a third of batted balls against him this year have been on the ground, and even though that 8.2% HR/FB looks nice, one could easily worry about negative regression coming.
Ever the strike thrower, Wade’s zone profiles look similar at first glance. Against right-handed hitters, though, some changes jump out.
Staying away from the inner third of the plate against righties has always been his MO, but LeBlanc has taken that to new heights in his starts this year. Just under five percent of his pitches to them ending up there, and take another look at that bruise-colored 3x3 square in the lower right - Wade has been especially adept at pounding the low-and-away corners of the strike zone.
While his swinging strike rate of 7.7% is his lowest since 2012, LeBlanc’s results laugh in the face of it. He’s gotten ahead on hitters nearly 70% of the time, and despite an uptick in overall contact rate, his hard-hit rate has dropped nearly ten full points. His O-Contact% has leapt to 80% with just a tiny bump in O-Swing% - a possible big factor in his limiting home run damage thus far. In other words, LeBlanc’s lack of deception may actually be helping him in the early going, with poor contact on pitches out of the zone allowing him quick outs.
There are several reasons to remain uneasy about Wade LeBlanc. He certainly isn’t going to keep up his nearly perfect strand rate as a starter, his velocity is still below-average despite a slight uptick, and he still hasn’t shown the ability to get particularly deep into games. His results so far feel more sustainable than his smoke and mirrors act in 2016, though, and there’s a decent argument to be made that he’s one of the three best starting pitching options available on the roster. LeBlanc has earned a spot in the rotation for at least the next few turns, and has a good chance to bolster his case of keeping it once Erasmo Ramirez returns fully healthy.