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A Fistful of Strikeouts

Cue the Ennio Morricone — Dominic Leone is back

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers
Cutter? Cutter.
Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s note: I wrote this Friday morning. I didn’t get a chance to watch the game yesterday, but uh — sorry for the jinx. All stats current through Thursday, I made Leone give up a dinger, etc.

Before the 2018 season, the Cardinals were in a familiar situation. They had too many bodies in the outfield (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) and not enough proven arms in the bullpen (wait a second…). The team mitigated both issues with a single trade, sending tilapia enthusiast Randal Grichuk to the Blue Jays in exchange for Dominic Leone and Conner Greene. While Greene was a toolsy prospect with multi-inning weapon upside (and I-coulda-been-somebody downside), Leone was the true gem of the trade.

If you follow baseball largely through the lens of the Cardinals, you’d probably never heard of Leone before the team acquired him. He had bounced around the league (stops in Seattle and Arizona) before arriving on the Blue Jays and delivering an absolutely unconscious 2017 -- 70 innings of 2.56 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 29% K rate relief. That’s the kind of season that makes teams sit up and take notice -- by both rate stats and WAR, he was a top 30 reliever in all of baseball.

Why am I recapping 2017? 2018 has happened, after all. Well, Leone basically had a wasted 2018. He amassed only 24 innings, limited by a nerve injury in his throwing arm, which is probably about as scary as it sounds. When he pitched, he was -- well, he was fine, mostly, but uninspiring. His peripheral numbers remained strong (25% strikeout rate, 7.5% walk rate, mid-3s FIP and xFIP), though his ERA took a BABIP-induced spike higher to 4.5.

The big problem for the Cardinals, though, was availability. The team was undoubtedly counting on Leone for another 60-70 inning season, and the innings he missed were filled with essentially bubble gum and optimistically worded prayers. The timing of his return (late August) made his innings feel even more replaceable, as he joined a pile of AAA call-ups for the team’s heartbreaking September push. By the offseason, Leone was hardly mentioned in recaps of the Cardinals bullpen, and I can totally understand why. He was a complete cipher -- capable of dominance, but with only a short track record of dependability and a more recent bout with injury.

I’m merely a fallible observer, but when I thought about the 2019 bullpen, I mostly discounted contributions from Leone. Maybe he’d be good, or maybe he wouldn’t, but I didn’t put a lot more stock into his playing time projections than I did with the Cecil/Gregerson cohort. A week into the season, however, it looks like I’ll have egg on my face, and not just through a combination of sloppy eating and a morning omelette. Leone has made four appearances (including a two-inning stint) in six games, and he looks to my eye like he might be a difference-maker again.

What does a healthy Dominic Leone look like? Well, he’s a strikeout machine. Even including an inexplicably awful 2016 (17.6% K rate, 6+ ERA and FIP in 27 innings), Leone has struck out a quarter of the batters he’s faced in his major league career. Starting with his time on the Blue Jays, he’s been even better -- close to 30% strikeouts and 8% walks. Even in the era of strikeouts we live in today, that’s a valuable bullpen piece. He combines those bat-missing skills with a late-inning reliever starter kit -- a few more ground balls than normal, a tiny amount of home run suppression relative to average, basically nothing out of the ordinary. In short, a healthy Leone is the kind of guy every team would like to have in their bullpen, even if no team would want him as the first option.

How does he get to his enviable strikeout rate? That’s a fair and interesting question. Leone’s pitch mix is a study in blending. He throws four pitches, but realistically he throws something like two-and-a-half pitches, with the rest being tinkering. His cutter and his slider are basically variations on the same theme, and they’ve long been the main attraction when it comes to strikeout stuff. In 2017, Leone generated whiffs on 60% of swings at his slider, and nearly 50% with his cutter. Given how aggressively he used the cutter (36% of his pitches, with sliders another 10%), he generated an absolute ton of swings and misses.

The deceptive break on his cutter bamboozled hitters on location, too -- hitters swung at a ton of pitches out of the zone while taking far too many in the zone. In fact, only three pitchers generated more swings out of the zone and less swings in the zone than Leone -- Alex Claudio, Joe Smith, and Andrew-Miller-type-reliever-era Andrew Miller, the patron saint of batter-fooling relievers. This cutter/slider action complemented a cookie-cutter four-seam fastball -- sitting 94-95, touching 98, with pretty average spin and movement. He’s also sprinkled in a liberal amount of two-seamers, creating another look to keep hitters off balance.

In looking through Leone’s pitch mix, I was struck by how consistent he’s been. He hasn’t tinkered with his core 50% straight pitches 50% bending pitches mix that much at all, even as he experiments with which version of each he wants to throw. He’s barely varied the shape of each pitch aside from toying with how sharply he throws his slider -- the cutter has been a rock, and he’s just messed with how much he takes off of it to throw the slider. More than that, he rarely varies within plate appearances -- he’s roughly 50% to throw either a fastball or a cutter on the first pitch, and aside from more fastballs on 3-0 and more sliders on 0-2, he never really gets off that even mix of pitches.

This core unpredictability fascinates me from a game theoretical standpoint, and for me it’s the main interesting I found from digging further into his success. I love pitchers who play against expectations (pitch backward, throw breaking balls mainly in the strike zone, really just anything novel), and Leone’s consistently unpredictable pitch mix certainly fits the bill. I didn’t dig into league-wide analysis to see how unique this is (what is this, Fangraphs?), but as a more-than-casual observer of baseball, I can’t think of anyone who sticks with a single plan as much as Leone.

What does that mean from a performance standpoint? Largely, it means that Leone can get away with missed pitches from time to time. Leone’s pitches start so similarly and end so differently that hitters see patterns that aren’t there -- in the games I’ve watched so far this year, he’s gotten several swings where hitters were pretty clearly hunting the opposite pitch, in addition to several where the hitter looked caught in between fast and slow and took a swing that didn’t make sense for either. Want a hilariously small sample anecdote to back my observation up? You’re in luck. Christian Yelich might be an all-destroying baseball deity at the moment, but he’s 0-1 against Leone with an infield pop-up. It’s not even like the pitch that got him out was that insane -- just an up-in-the-zone four-seam, delivered on a 1-1 count, that Yelich mistimed.

So, should you go out and get yourself a Leone shirsey? Not so fast, my friend. First of all, why are you getting a shirsey of a reliever? That seems like a foolish purchase given their fungibility. Honestly, my second reason is a distant second -- the key is just that relievers break. Second, though, is that Leone’s fastball is down about a tick from both last year and his 2017 peak. Now, I’m inclined to completely ignore it. Velocities are lower across the board in March and April, and Leone exhibited a similar start-slow-and-build-velo pattern in 2017. Still, if you’re looking for reasons to worry, there’s that.

The most nebulous reason is that he really does rely on strikeouts for his value. Leone’s batted ball profile is nothing special despite the deceptive pitch mix. If hitters just swung and missed less often at his cutter (admittedly a tall order, it’s a nice cutter), Leone could become a generic middle reliever pretty quickly. When I look for breakout relievers, I’m basically looking for a single dominant pitch -- Andrew Millers’ lol-thanks-for-playing slider, Jordan Hicks’ hundo-plus sinker, or even John Brebbia’s ludicrously-spun and pristinely-located four-seamer. Leone doesn’t really have that -- he has two pitches that he liberally mixes into an un-timeable, un-guessable pitching conundrum. There’s simply less room for his pitch quality to decline and stay above-average.

Still, though. Dominic Leone is good, and he’s good right now! He’s thrown 4 ⅔ innings without allowing a run, and he’s looked good doing it. We’ll deal with tomorrow tomorrow. For today, Leone is a steadying presence in the wild frontier of the Cardinals bullpen. Let’s appreciate it while it lasts.