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Daniel Ponce de Leon Is Evolving

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St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Daniel Ponce de Leon has been given the chance to pitch out of the rotation due to the Cardinals lack of healthy pitchers. However, now that most everyone is back or on the way back, it appears unlikely that Ponce de Leon will remain in the rotation due to his mediocre results and inability to control his pitch count and pitch deep into games. However, while in the rotation, he has revealed a new approach to facing hitters.

To begin with, Ponce de Leon is throwing more curveballs. Last season, just 8.5% of Ponce de Leon’s pitches were curveballs. This season, however, he has increased that rate to 21.9%. Many of these curveballs have replaced fastballs as the right-hander’s fastball rate dropped from 70.7% to 59.2%. This may be Ponce de Leon’s attempt to give hitter’s different looks at the plate since he was required to throw more than just an inning or two. However, this could be a long term change, even if he returns to the bullpen. This is because his curveball has been incredibly effective. He has allowed just a .176 wOBA and .297 xwOBA against the pitch. This pitch has a solid 2760 rpm spin rate, as well as above average vertical and horizontal break which likely contributes to its effectiveness. Additionally, he has been effective in keeping the pitch down in the zone, helping generate a -17 degree average launch angle. This pitch does not have the greatest whiff rate (33.3%), however, the solid ground ball rate has helped the pitch maintain its effectiveness.

On the other hand, Ponce de Leon’s fastball has not been nearly as impressive this season. The 28-year-old has allowed a .465 wOBA and .396 xwOBA against the pitch a year after allowing just a .277 wOBA and .298 xwOBA. Part of the problem has been a large drop in the groundball rate of the pitch, from 38.5% last season to 15.4% this year. Hitters have been able to occasionally hit the pitch hard and when they do, it is typically in the air, which does much more damage. This change, however, could be due to a change in the location of the pitch.

Last season, Ponce de Leon’s location chart looked like this:

This season, his location chart looks like this:

To be clear, these charts show the location of all of his pitches. Therefore, it is understandable that the bottom right zone has seen a higher rate of pitches this year because Ponce de Leon is throwing more curveballs. However, he throws his curveball just over 21% of the time. This should not explain why it is the most popular zone by far, and why he is not throwing more pitches up in the zone and above the zone like he did last year. This was the primary location of his fastball last season, and it helped his fastball be an effective pitch. However, it appears that more of his fastballs have drifted over the middle zones of the plate which have seen more pitches than the top zones of the plate. This is likely why Ponce de Leon has struggled more this season. He needs to throw his fastball higher like he did last season, if he wants to become more effective. This could be a lack of command that is causing Ponce de Leon’s pitches to drift further down in the zone or it could be an intentional effort. Either way, his fastball would likely experience better results if it was located higher in the zone. Additionally, a low curveball would play well with a high fastball by changing speeds as well as the eye levels of the opposing hitters. This pairing could be very effective if Ponce de Leon could get his fastball back in the upper parts of the zone.

It will be interesting to watch his next few games and see if he returns to targeting the high parts of the strike zone or if he continues to spread his pitches out more. If he returns, then it could mean that his command was struggling, however, this could still be a season-long trend.