You never root for injuries. Unless you root for Wade LeBlanc. Then you pretty much don’t have a choice.
A scouting report: Wade LeBlanc stands perfectly still on the mound, unreadable. Then he sighs, slumps his shoulders, and draws up into his motion. His pitchface is all tightly creased lips, drawn cheeks, eyes that betray a fear of the future. There’s no violence in his delivery, no snap of the wrist, no flash of sweat or hair; during his follow-through his back foot kicks up almost half a second late, as if forgotten. One is given the impression of a gate being pushed closed by a gust of wind. Some men pitch like they’re falling; LeBlanc pitches like he’s in a swim aerobics class, slowly pulling that left arm around, turning, ready to complete the turn to watch the outfielders work.
His fastball, which rarely scratches ninety, is the physical manifestation of Zeno’s Paradox, struggling to get to home plate halfway at a time. His curve and slider are such unreliable weapons, and wielded so rarely, that their main purpose seems to be to punish the hitters who study the advance scouting reports. But it’s his changeup that separates him, and grants him the use of a major-league uniform from time to time. It begins like any other pitch, and then drops out of the zone like a duck shot out of the sky. LeBlanc may only strike out six batters per nine, but if there were a stat for flail rates, he’d rank much higher. If only.
A profile: Once a second-round draft pick out of Alabama, LeBlanc settled into a role as a professional harbinger. After earning 25 starts in 2010 as a fourth starter with the Padres, he lived a life of substitute teaching, showing up wherever rotations were shorthanded, pitching in blowouts to pass the time. His options ran out, and the only thing that changed was his frequent flier miles: In 2014, he went from Salt Lake to Anaheim to New York for a single inning, and then back to the Angels. In 2015, it was Japan, where he overperformed his peripherals to the tune of a 4.23 ERA. It’s a common career arc, and one reminiscent of one of LeBlanc’s own changeups. The descent was underway.
It would have been no surprise if we never uttered his name again; he failed to make the 2016 annual, nor even be cut from it. And yet just as the book went to press, he found a pitching-starved team in the Toronto Blue Jays, and agreed to spend a late spring as a fallback in sunny Buffalo. There, with a 1.71 ERA in 14 starts, he staved off the void, just long enough for tendonitis to fell enough heirs to the majors, and he became a Seattle Mariner.
An analysis: One of the sad things about the modern age of baseball is that it’s robbed us of the ability to believe in Wade LeBlanc. Once upon a time, all it took was three or four quality starts and a talented sportswriter to spin a legend of hard work and redemption, some alchemical discovery. Such tales still exist, but they’re often sprung from the last font of baseball mystery, the human body. LeBlanc has no such ground to regain; he’s never been hurt, never good enough to overtax. So when it comes time to explain this latest resurrection, the answers are charmingly vague.
"I don't think I'm a different pitcher," LeBlanc said in an interview with MiLB’s John Wagner, before being traded to the M’s. "That year [in Japan] has just given me a different understanding of what can be effective, what can be successful."
He continues: “But going [to Japan], seeing how they do things, can give you an insight on how to do things better when you come back here," he said. "If a hitter is looking for a fastball, don't throw him a fastball, throw him something else for a strike. A lot of guys try to make pitching difficult, and it doesn't have to be.
"Like hitting, pitching can be a game of failure. But it makes it tougher if you out-think yourself."
It’s a little counterintuitive at first blush: LeBlanc talks about anticipating the mind of the batter, but then talks about overthinking one’s self. But it makes sense; the key to sequencing is unpredictability, and unpredictability is surprisingly difficult. It’s hard to use these stupid human brains, so set on finding patterns and surviving out in the wilderness, to create something with zero patterns in it. It’s the curse of every student staring at a Scantron answer sheet and thinking, “should there really be this many answers for letter A?”
So despite admittedly unchanged raw materials, if our hero were somehow able to tap into a newfound ability to clear his mind, to shed himself of these instinctual habits, you could see it surfacing in his pitch selection, particularly on certain counts when the hitter is likely to key into a particular pitch. Has this been the case? A chart comparing LeBlanc’s 2016 pitch selection to his career, and the league at large, descending from pitcher’s counts to hitter’s counts:
It’s only three games, so foster all necessary skepticism. But thus far, LeBlanc is a man of his word, almost to a fault: He’s throwing his worst pitch almost exclusively when he’s ahead in the count, as the hitters sit back on his change, and he’s throwing junk when they’re sitting on the fastball. The latter works because he can throw his changeup and curve for strikes when necessary; of his 61 batters faced, only three have walked. And when he does get behind in the count, when the averages are truly against him, his best pitch is now a 50-50 proposition. He’s basically converted himself into a human coin-flipping exercise: will the pitch be a 90 mph strike or a 75 mph strike?
It’s a concept that theoretically can work. Fernando Rodney has succeeded with it, except for the seasons where he hasn’t. And there’s no pitcher better suited to the strategy than LeBlanc, a pitcher for whom even odds sound pretty attractive, who will rarely be around for things to even out. Nineteen innings at the end of 2014 earned him a decent paycheck overseas; now, a few more hits might afford him just one more year living his dreams.
A conclusion: After two improbable quality starts, a more predictable five-run, 3 1/3-inning turn evaporated most of his mystique. The M’s rotation will reset after the All-Star Break, and Felix Hernandez returns; but the crafty lefty earned a 15-day reprieve as Taijuan Walker replaced him on the shelf. For now, LeBlanc still owns the fifth spot, but Nathan Karns is waiting for his own chance at redemption, and Mike Montgomery has a few chapters left in his own story. Both have better stuff. There’s not much time. There’s only barely any time at all.
Perhaps it’s a single start. And if he performs well, another single start, and another. It’s an endless game of single-or-nothing, the short stack in Hold ‘Em going all-in without looking at their cards. At some point the league will catch on, and LeBlanc will need another trick, or another rash of injuries, to avoid busting out. It’s impressive that he still has chips.
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