Although he’s recently been signed to a minor league deal — as detailed in yesterday’s Bird Droppings — left-handed pitcher Wade LeBlanc figures to have a strong chance of making the 2020 rotation for Baltimore as things currently stand.
For his career, LeBlanc is 45-47 with a 4.46 ERA and 4.68 FIP. Since starting his career in 2008, he’s appeared in 234 games, including 114 starts and 120 relief appearances. He’s only surpassed triple-digits in innings pitched three times in his career, including 2018 and 2019, when he threw 162 and 121.1, respectively. Other than that you’ve got to go all the way back to 2010 (146 IP) for the last time he came even close to those totals.
But still, experience is a key factor when considering LeBlanc’s role with the Orioles because the club has at least two rotation spots up for grabs heading into spring training and a lot of young players in competition. LeBlanc has more major league seasoning than potential starters David Hess, Keegan Akin, Kohl Stewart and Brandon Bailey combined.
At 35 years old, not only does LeBlanc become the oldest member of the Orioles’ pitching staff, but of the entire team. There are only four other players over the age of 30 on the O’s roster right now, with the oldest being Chris Davis (33).
Arguably, LeBlanc had the best season of his career two years ago while pitching for the Mariners. In 2018, he threw a career high 162 innings over the course of 32 appearances (27 starts) with a 3.72 ERA, 4.28 FIP, 1.20 WHIP and 3.25 SO/W. It was the first time since 2010 — when he was a 25-year-old starter with the Padres — that he surpassed 80 innings pitched.
Other than having increased opportunity and relatively good health, what else allowed LeBlanc to excel in 2018?
A classic junkballer, LeBlanc has always relied on location over velocity since he came into the league in 2008. According to Baseball Savant, the lefty sports a five-pitch mix that includes a sinker, curveball, cutter, changeup and a four-seam fastball that sits in the mid-to-high 80s.
LeBlanc experimented with a slider from 2016-2018, introducing the pitch to his repertoire at a 1.6% usage rate which then increased to 6.6% in 2017. But in 2018 he virtually eliminated that pitch, throwing just two off them all year (0.1%). He didn’t throw any sliders in 2019.
The left-hander also bumped up his sinker usage from 13.3% in 2017 to 27.8% in 2018 while decreasing his four-seam fastball usage from 21.3% to 7.7% between those two same years.
Looking back several years, the left-hander has managed to remain healthy for the most part. A quick glance at LeBlanc’s MLB transactions shows that he’s only been placed on the injured list twice in the past three years. In 2017 he missed a couple weeks with a strained quadriceps and he missed about a month early in the 2019 season with a strained oblique.
Despite a career spanning 11 years, LeBlanc has only pitched at Camden Yards on three occasions, during which time he owns a 9.00 ERA over seven innings. He started one game in Baltimore in 2018 and allowed four runs (three earned) over 5.2 innings. He also made two relief appearances in 2017, allowing four runs over a total of 1.1 innings.
In his limited exposure to AL East teams the past three years, LeBlanc has had mixed results. Since 2017, LeBlanc has a 5.09 ERA in 17.2 innings against the Red Sox, a 1.69 ERA in 5.1 IP against the Yankees, a 4.35 ERA in 10.1 IP against the Rays and a 6.43 ERA in 14 IP against the Blue Jays. Only four of the aforementioned 11 appearances came as a starting pitcher.
Another glaring red flag is his 2.1 HR/9 last season. And that came while spending half of his time in the spacious confines of Safeco Field in Seattle. For perspective, that ratio is exactly the same as Dylan Bundy in 2018 when he led the league in home runs allowed (41). That does not bode well for a pitcher gearing up to pitch half of his games in cozy Camden Yards.
Wade LeBlanc presents a curious case to say the least. He’s exactly the type of pitcher you would expect the Orioles to sign with the current state they are in and based on his history, he could be solid or be a dud.
Best case scenario is that he eats some innings and maybe some southpaw wisdom rubs off on John Means. Worst case scenario, the Orioles are left where they were the past couple years, struggling to find capable arms to make it past the fifth.
Stats provided by Baseball Reference, ESPN and Baseball Savant.