Wade LeBlanc leans on a common refrain when asked about his approach, mechanics and the secret to his rejuvenated 2018 pitching for the Seattle Mariners.
It’s typically something that borders on self-deprecating. A pitcher with his stuff can’t afford mistakes, he says.
But this stretch of pitching – one that took flight when he entered the Mariners’ starting rotation at the start of May — has to attributed to more than simply riding good fortune.
“Yeah,” Mariners catcher Mike Zunino said. “Because he’s good.”
Credit LeBlanc in many ways for saving this Mariners rotation, vaulting himself from a rarely used long reliever to one of baseball’s better pitchers for more than a month now.
But then turn the clock back a little further. The New York Yankees decided they didn’t even want him on a minor-league contract and released him in mid-March only for the Mariners to turn around hours later and offer him a big-league deal because set-up reliever David Phelps suffered a season-ending elbow injury.
LeBlanc isn’t too engrossed in the day to day to not step back and take a look at what he’s accomplished. In eight starts for the Mariners so far, he hasn’t taken a loss and has a 2.45 earned-run average. Opponents are hitting .235 against him.
“I think if you bury your head in data and all that stuff, you kind of lose sight of the fact that this is a blessing and something that’s humbling to be able to do on a daily basis,” said LeBlanc, a 33-year-old from Lake Charles, La. “It’s good to be able to step back while you’re in the middle of it because then it allows you to see things like where you’ve come from.”
In an era where velocity is king, LeBlanc tops out at 87 mph, but attacks with an array of cutters and changeups. Contrast that to the pitcher LeBlanc follows in the Mariners’ rotation — left-hander James Paxton pumps his fastball up to 98 mph.
LeBlanc has been designated for assignment seven times in his 10 years, traded once, released once and also spent a season in Japan in 2015.
But his success hasn’t just been this stint. Over his past 214 innings dating back to 2014, LeBlanc is 12-3 with a 3.83 ERA with 7.1 strikeouts and 2.1 walks per nine innings in appearances split between the the rotation and bullpen (he pitched exclusively as a reliever with the Pittsburgh Pirates last season).
He’s figured this out.
“I brought it up to the people in our baseball group what he’s done over his past 200 innings. It’s pretty phenomenal, and all due credit to Wade,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said on one of his recent podcasts.
“This organization has seen the most magnificent transformation of a mid-80s pitcher in his early 30s turn into a front-of-the-rotation guy — and certainly for the month of May Wade LeBlanc was every bit of that.”
Mariners manager Scott Servais was asked after one of LeBlanc’s recent start if the left-hander is showing he can sustain this, that it’s more than simply a fortunate stretch of baseball.
“There’s a guy named Jamie Moyer who pitched for a long time and people didn’t think that was sustainable, either, because he didn’t blow you away with his fastball,” Servais said. “It’s a feel to pitch — back and forth and reading the bat.
“There will be nights it will be real good and nights it will be a little rough. He doesn’t have the Paxton-type stuff, obviously. But his know-how and feel to pitch — he’s got moxie is what he’s got. I think that’s kind of what Jamie Moyer had.”
Not a bad comparison.
“It would take a lot more of this for me to get halfway to Jamie Moyer,” LeBlanc said. “But the fact that there’s some success there that’s leading people to say that is really eye-opening and humbling, especially to sit back and step back and see where you’ve ended up from where you’ve come from.
“But I’m not going to sit on that. There’s certainly things I can improve on. I can get better against lefties, I can finish guys and put away counts better and get more ground balls and all that stuff. There’s a list a mile long of things I can do better.”
And that’s part of LeBlanc’s strength.
The Mariners staff have raved about LeBlanc’s willingness to absorb scouting reports and rely on pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. and Zunino. He attributed much of what he’s done to working with them and having familiarity with them from his first stint here in 2016.
“My first start in Oakland my velocity was down, down for me, to like 85. Every mile per hour is big for me, especially since my changeup was still the same speed,” LeBlanc said. “My arm strength was the same, so I was just losing something somewhere in my mechanics. I couldn’t figure out where.
“I sat down with Mel and we figured that my stride length was about a half-foot short of what it is when I’m right. I wasn’t using my back leg as much as I normally do, not driving. That was huge for me.”
Zunino said LeBlanc is different than some pitchers, too, because he understands he has limitations and that he truly can’t beat himself. He needs to command is pitches.
LeBlanc said he’s better learned how to synchronize his repertoire, when to attack right-handers inside with his cutter (like his last start on Monday when LeBlanc struck out Justin Upton with the bases loaded in the fifth inning), when to balance with his changeup and incorporate a sinker he’s finally learned how to use effectively.
“I made my debut in 2008 and it took me 6-7 years to finally get comfortable with how I am as a pitcher,” LeBlanc said. “It took me a long time to learn what pitches work best for me and how to get to those pitches. I don’t throw (Mike) Leake’s sinker, but it gets the ball off the barrel, and that’s what a guy like me needs. It just takes some guys longer than other guys to get here.”
LeBlanc tried to tell the Mariners he felt he’d got there this past spring.
“He made some comments about, ‘I know I can be better than people are giving me credit for,” Servais said. “You need opportunity. When opportunity came, he stepped in and took advantage. He’d been getting more out of his stuff, and (moving to the rotation) allowed him to do it as far as introducing the breaking ball and the cutter. I think those pitches have been there, and we’ve encouraged him to use them more, and it’s worked out.”