Dominic Leone: Get Him While the Getting’s Good
In the midst of this utterly slow offseason, there have been some trades that have kept our engagement intact. Including a deal that sprung out of nowhere in the middle of the offseason- the Cardinals shipping outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays. The aftermath of the exchange mostly related to Grichuk and the Blue Jays. But I feel that the real prize of this trade wasn’t acquired by the Blue Jays, but rather the Cardinals. Righty reliever Dominic Leone might have been one of the more underrated relievers in the baseball last season and this trade leaves plenty of fantasy impact to be discussed.
Leone is a Connecticut native and Clemson baseball alum, drafted by the Mariners in the 16th round of the 2012 MLB Draft. He’s never really appeared on anyone’s radar, despite a fairly quick ascension through the minor leagues and a big league debut in under two years. His first impression was good too, logging a 2.17 ERA and 3.07 FIP in 66.1 innings, striking out 70 and walking 25. Leone was then sent down south to Arizona as a part of the trade that brought Mark Trumbo to Seattle. But his two seasons in the desert weren’t nearly as fruitful, dealing with numerous DL stints and lack of overall consistency. Subsequently, he was released by the Diamondbacks and sent to the Blue Jays via waiver claim.
It was a tale of two halves for Dominic Leone last year. For most of the first half, Leone looked like the same pitcher he was for his whole career, a bottom of the barrel reliever in a major league bullpen with little-to-no fantasy relevance- 2.95 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 4.64 xFIP, 9.5 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 31.7 GB%. But then out of nowhere, he saw a major uptick in performance during the second half- 2.05 ERA, 1.95 FIP, 2.44 xFIP, 11.5 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 52.1 GB%. There were a couple of things to notice here: a substantial gain in K-rate, an enormous reduction in BB-rate, and a glaring rise in GB-rate.
Let’s start with that groundball rate, and put the dramatic change into perspective. In the first half, Leone ranked 311th out of 328 pitchers in GB%, good for the bottom 6% in baseball (minimum 30 innings pitched). In the second half, Leone ranked 42nd out of 250 pitchers in GB%, good for ranking in the top 17% of baseball during that time span (minimum 30 innings pitched). He essentially did a full-180.
In the second half, improved command seemed to be the name of the game for Leone. It wasn’t just the improved GB% though, as he was also walking 2.6 fewer batters per nine. He clearly had a better feel for the zone (41.4% of pitches in the strike-zone during the first half, 48.8% during the second half). Leone drastically improved his GB%, K%, and BB% in the second half, something that is not even close to easy to pull off. Let’s take a look at his pitch location.
It’s pretty easy to see that Leone was working himself to a more controlled zone in the second half, throwing a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone and leaving pitches out over the heart of the plate less often. Perhaps this change can help explain his improved BB-rate and GB-rate.
The next thing that stood out to me was the significant bump in velocity, mainly in his four-seam fastball. In the first half, Leone and his four-seamer were averaging at 94.4 MPH. Average out the second half, and it added more than a full MPH, sitting at 95.6 MPH. With the added velocity came a new feel for his slider too- opposing batters posted a .297 wOBA off of it in the first half, .075 wOBA in the second. It wasn’t a pitch he threw very often (only about 10% of the time in the second half), but it was the inclusion of that third pitch that did wonders for him.
After Leone was dealt to St. Louis, it seemed like there was still a lot left unanswered about the Cardinal’s bullpen roles. But as we’ve approached Opening Day, it looks more and more like Leone will get the ninth inning. The nice spring he put together only helps his case, allowing four hits and only one earned run in nine appearances, striking out 12. He also tied for the Spring Training lead in saves, garnering three.
And then there’s this…
BREAKING: Mike Matheny just said Luke Gregerson will begin the season on the disabled list, ostensibly slotting both John Brebbia and Mike Mayers for the Opening Day bullpen. #STLCards
— Joe Trezza (@JoeTrezz) March 24, 2018
Leone is currently being drafted as the 45th reliever off the board. At that draft position, he could wind up being a steal. If his second half was no fluke, I truly believe he has the ceiling to be a top-ten reliever this season.