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Jose DeLeon and feeling lost

Jose DeLeon may have been underrated

Pittsburgh Pirates Jose DeLeon Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Have you ever felt lost?

I do not mean you can’t find a place you’re looking for. I do not mean lost in the sense that you don’t know your place in life. I mean you’re stuck in the woods, genuinely lost. Have you ever felt like that? I have once in my life. It is hands down, the most terrifying feeling I’ve ever had in my life. And if you don’t agree, I suspect you haven’t really had the feeling like I mean it.

Here’s the story. I was working a job at Innsbrook Resort - as the catering company, supplying food. If you don’t know what Innsbrook Resort is, it’s about an hour away from St. Louis, in the absolute middle of nowhere, where it functions primarily as the second residence of wealthy people whenever they want a weekend away. The relevant part is that it’s the middle of nowhere. You get off the highway to a very dead town, drive through that town and clearly drive into nothing but road and trees.

Anyway, job done, we’re leaving when it’s absolute pitch black out. The workers are sort of following each other because it’s not the easiest place to navigate, especially with no lights. Somehow - and I say somehow because I definitely wasn’t leading the pack - I find myself at a dead end and I’m the last guy backing out of the dead end. By the time I actually back out, literally everyone else is gone. There is no lights in view anywhere except for my car lights. I mean anywhere. Everything around me is black.

I drove around a little and then I panicked. This overwhelming feeling hit me. My battery on my phone was low. My gas probably wasn’t that low, but I’m pretty sure I had to fill the tnak before the end of my trip. So the thought crosses my mind that I might run out of gas with no phone battery in the middle of the woods and no real knowledge how to get back to civilization. I freaked out. All rational thought exited my brain and I had a panic attack. Never had one of those before, still haven’t since then. I eventually forced myself to calm down and take a breath. And I think I found the road I needed to be on soon after that.

I don’t know why I thought of that while lying in bed a few days ago. Hadn’t thought about that probably since it happened, close to 10 years ago. Alright let’s connect this story to baseball. Lost, losing, big losing pitcher, the wheel says Jose DeLeon. Actually sincerely, I did want to write about the “lost” feeling, but couldn’t figure out a way to connect it to baseball. Cut to Wednesday, thinking of something to write, somehow land on writing about DeLeon, who somehow conveniently lost a lot in his career. It is in no way a good connective tissue for a post, but it’s the best I got.

I’m utterly fascinated by DeLeon. I haven’t actually ever watched him pitch. He stopped being a Cardinal the same year I was born. His stat page fascinates me. For some reason, he reminds me of Lance Lynn. The Cardinal version of Lynn, and really I suppose I mean the first few years as a Cardinal Lance Lynn. When he had a sizable contingent of fans who did not like him. 2013 Lance Lynn looks very much like a Jose DeLeon season.

DeLeon was born in the Dominican Republic, but had moved to New Jersey by the time he hit high school. He made enough of a splash there to get drafted in the 3rd round of the 1979 MLB Draft. By 1981, he had made it to AA, but it was purely from scouting; he had more walks than strikeouts in the Gulf Coast League his first year and was improved but not particularly good in 1980 in Low A. He had his first good year in AA, though with a severe walk problem (5.3 BB/9). In AAA in 1982, the walks stayed the same, but the strikeouts went way down leading to a 6.13 ERA.

The strikeouts came back the next season, although the AAA team also changed location which may or may not have helped, but in any case, his 3.04 ERA was much improved and he got promoted midseason. At 22-years-old, he was outstanding in his debut season. He went 7-3 with a 2.83 ERA and 2.51 FIP. Among pitchers with at least 100 IP, DeLeon had the highest K% in baseball with 26.9%. Second place was 23.2% and only nine pitchers had 20% or better. To give you an idea of his dominance.

In 1984, the theme of his career began to take shape: losing. He had the dreaded sophomore slump, but was still a good pitcher with a 3.74 ERA and 3.33 FIP. But he played on a 75-87 Pirates team and worse, they didn’t hit for him. In 13 games, he received either one run or zero runs. He went... 7-13. Shocker.

1984 went worse. The Pirates were bad in 1983, but they were really bad in 1984. They went 57-104. DeLeon also decided to have the highest ERA of his career, aside from his final season. The Pirates gave him a grand total of 2.31 runs of support throughout the entire season. Throw a 4.70 ERA onto a bad team who never scores when you pitch. You get a 2-19 record. He got moved to the bullpen on September 16th and still managed to lose another game before the year was over.

He started the next year in the bullpen but was unbelievably bad - 17 walks to 11 strikeouts 16.1 IP with an 8.27 ERA - so they traded him to the White Sox. He got moved to the rotation with the White Sox and righted the ship. In 13 starts, he had a 2.96 ERA. He threw 200 IP in his lone full season with the White Sox and had a 2.4 fWAR season. Over the offseason, he was traded to the Cards. And he proceeded to rattle off back-to-back best seasons of his career.

1988 looks like Lance Lynn’s 2013. In 2013, Lance Lynn had a 3.97 ERA, but also a 3.28 FIP and 3.66 xFIP. His ERA was as high as 4.37 in September, but he had a few strong starts late. But the basic point is lots of Ks, lot of walks, higher ERA than advanced stats. DeLeon’s K% was 22.1% to a 9.1 BB%. Lynn’s 2013 was a 22.2% K to a 9.1% BB. I am not making that up. DeLeon has always reminded me of Lynn, just looking at his page, and I feel strangely justified now.

Anyway because 2013 was a very different time than 1988, DeLeon had the better season. He had the better ERA, the better FIP. He then duplicated his season in 1989, at least by advanced stats, but his ERA went from 3.67 to 3.05. Lynn went from 3.97 to 2.74. Aside from DeLeon’s rookie year, he had his first two winning seasons in his first two seasons as a Card. His price for achieving this was.... he led the league in losses again in 1990. At least he was replacement level in 1985, he definitely didn’t pitch badly enough in 1990 to deserve this crown.

But run support is the story again. DeLeon got 3 or less runs of support in 19 of his 32 starts for an average of 3.07 runs per start. Since his ERA was 4.43, well you can imagine how well that worked out. He at least won 7 games this time, but he once again lost 19 games. The Cards didn’t want him to lose 20 games, so he missed his last start of the year.

In 1991, he bounced back, but somehow went 5-9 in 28 starts with a 2.71 ERA. He went 5-2 with 8 no decisions when he allowed one earned run or less. He went 0-4 with two no decisions when he allowed two earned runs. He legitimately only won games when he allowed one earned run or less, and sometimes not even then! That is an astonishingly level of bad luck. Of course, he allowed five earned runs or more three times and in those three games, the Cardinals scored 4, 8, and 8 runs. Baseball!

He got moved to the bullpen in 1992 after starting the year 2-6, although of course one of those losses involved him allowing just two unearned runs in 6 innings of work. That’s right. This magical man lost a game in which he allowed zero earned runs. He was worse in the bullpen and was released before September. He lasted a few more years, including one solid year in the bullpen, but his career was done after 34.

I have to think that his career may have ended prematurely because he just threw a ton of pitches. So I have this theory that part of the reason that pitchers used to throw complete games a lot is that they threw significantly less pitches than we assume. Pitchers didn’t strike out that many hitters and good ones didn’t walk that many hitters, and I feel like there was a lot of Madduxes.

But that’s definitely not the case with DeLeon. Actually, just looking at DeLeon, I’m pretty sure my theory is correct. In his 244.2 IP season, DeLeon threw over 120 pitches just five times. That is to be clear a lot, but if this guy who is the workhorse for the staff is throwing 120+ pitches just five times, a guy who doesn’t have modern looking Ks and BBs probably thew around 100 pitches all the time when they threw complete games. So that’s my personal theory. Pitchers had more reasonable than we assume pitch counts, because they weren’t throwing 5 pitches per batter.

Was DeLeon underrated for his time? I feel like he had to be. He went 86-119 in his career, and that had to affect his reputation. He led the league in losses twice! Anyway, just wanted to write about DeLeon and write about feeling lost once, and the only thing lost was the offenses of the teams DeLeon pitched for. Good closing line? Eh.