Among all the implausible happenings the Mariners have benefitted from this season, the transformation of Wade LeBlanc might be the most surprising. In nine starts, LeBlanc has allowed more than two runs just once. He’s posted an excellent 3.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has held opposing batters to a .267 wOBA as a starter. It’s all incredibly impressive considering the Mariners plucked him off the scrap heap right after spring training and stashed him in the bullpen for the first month of the season.
The weirdest thing about LeBlanc’s success has been how hard it’s been to explain. None of the traditional measures of success explain why he’s been so effective. That excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio I mentioned in the lede is more a result of a lack of walks rather than an abundance of strikeouts. His batted ball profile leans heavily towards fly balls rather than ground balls. And it’s not like he’s generating a ton of weak contact either—his expected wOBA on contact pretty much matches league average.
To make things even more confusing, all of his “luck” peripherals indicate a big crash should be immanent. He’s stranding 88.2% of the baserunners he allows. He’s pushed his home run per fly ball rate down to just 10.3%, pretty surprising in this home run heavy environment. Even his batting average on balls in play is suppressed—just .266 this year—though he’s been able to keep it below .270 the past three years.
So what’s been the secret to LeBlanc’s success this year? He attributes it to an ability to execute his pitches. Here’s how he describes his success against Boston:
“That’s a stout lineup over there, but the fact that me and Z were able to mix things up and put them in the rocking chair makes things easier. Everything was executed and that’s really all I can say. It’s the most important thing for me — it’s to execute pitches. Today, me and Z were able to do that.”
What does executing pitches tangibly look like? For LeBlanc, it all comes down to getting ahead in the count and then relying on his pitch mix to finish the at-bat. Among all starting pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings this season, LeBlanc’s first-pitch strike rate ranks 13th in the majors (fun fact: Marco Gonzales is 14th). Against the Red Sox, he earned a first-pitch strike against 20 of the 24 batters he faced, his highest single game rate in his nine starts. Maybe unsurprisingly, his lowest single game first-pitch strike rate this season was in his worst start of the year against the Astros.
Once he gets ahead in the count, LeBlanc has truly shined. Opponents have stacked their lineups with right-handed batters against LeBlanc but he’s actually performed better against them than when he’s benefitting from the platoon advantage (.280 wOBA vs. RHB, .297 wOBA vs. LHB). About 80% of his pitches have been thrown to righties. Take a look at his pitch mix by count when facing the platoon disadvantage.
When he’s ahead in the count, LeBlanc can reliably turn to any of his pitches in his repertoire. He may lean a little more on his changeup when ahead, but opposing batters still need to keep his cutter, sinker, and even his four-seam fastball in mind since he’s just as likely to throw one of those pitches instead. Even when he’s behind in the count, his pitch mix is pretty varied.
The result of this diverse pitch mix shows up in his plate discipline stats. Among that same sample of starting pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched, LeBlanc’s ability to keep batters off balance is unmatched. His 38.1% outside-zone swing rate (O-Swing%) is tops in the majors and his in-zone swing rate (Z-Swing%) of 62.5% is 13th in that sample. When opposing batters offer at LeBlanc’s pitches, they’re swinging at the wrong ones and just watching the right ones. In fact, he’s the only pitcher who appears in the top-15 on both of those leaderboards.
Conceptually, this makes a lot of sense. If batters are hunting for a particular pitch against LeBlanc, they’re likely to take an unexpected pitch in the zone if they don’t see it. And since he’s getting ahead in the count so often, if a batter does offer at an unexpected pitch, it’s more likely to be thrown off the plate because he can expand the zone.
This kind of approach requires excellent command and an ability to execute all the pitches in his repertoire. Without overwhelming velocity, his margin for error is razor thin. But an approach that keeps batters guessing has helped him maximize his entire repertoire. It could all come crashing down at a moment’s notice, but as long as he’s executing his pitches and sticking with his game plan, the wizardry should continue.