When we think of Wade LeBlanc, what usually jumps into our minds is a guy throwing a low-to-mid-80’s heater and a great changeup on the corners of the plate, and being generally effective.
After all, he had a decent 3.69 BB/9 rate last year, and has cut that to 3.21 this year. Average is about 3.5, so LeBlanc does indeed walk fewer people than average.
Now, one statistic that a lot of people aren’t aware of is how small the percentage of pitches in baseball actually find the strike zone. This season, only 47.9%–less than half–of all pitches thrown hit the strike zone. That doesn’t mean the others weren’t strikes, of course–plenty of out-of-the-zone-pitches get swung at (27.3% on average this season), and sometimes an umpire will give a pitcher a friendly call (although theoretically this is cancelled out by an equal number of unfriendly calls in the zone, but whatever).
No starting pitcher in baseball has thrown over 60% of their pitches in the strike zone this year.
We might expect LeBlanc, given his modest stuff, to fall on the high end of the in-the-zone spectrum, which runs roughly from 39-59%.
But that’s not the case.
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LeBlanc has put a measly 43.3% of his pitches in the strike zone; that’s eighth from the bottom out of all starting pitchers in baseball.
Now, pitchers can get away with that if they play their cards right, but two things need to happen.
First, they need to have good enough “stuff” to get batters to chase pitches late in counts.
Second, they have to be able to consistently get ahead of batters to get into “chase counts” where the batter is more likely to swing at a bad pitch.
Shaun Marcum of the Blue Jays is a textbook example of this. He only puts the ball in the zone 41.2% of the time (second to last in baseball), but gets batters to chase at an above-average number of pitches (29.4%) and gets a high number of first-pitch strikes (60%).
Others, like Mark Buehrle, Aaron Harang, Yovani Gallardo, and the Padres’ own Mat Latos, also follow a similar pattern, getting a high number of chases, high number of first-pitch strikes, or both.
LeBlanc, surprisingly, gets a decent number of chases (27.8%), but what’s even more surprising is what he does early in the count.
LeBlanc has only thrown 49.2% of his first pitches for strikes.
That’s not “in the zone,” mind you–that’s strikes of any variety.
So he doesn’t hit the strike zone much, and doesn’t favor getting strikes early in the count, and only gets an average number of chases. I would say that the only explanation for the good walk rate would be that he gets contact on most swings against him–so when batters do swing, they put it in play–but that’s not the case either. 21.5% of swings against LeBlanc miss; league average is usually around 20.
With no real explanation here, I have to think that this is somewhat fluky. Either the league is going to figure LeBlanc out and take more pitches, or he’s going to have to get strike one more often. I just don’t see a scenario in which a pitcher with a mid-80’s fastball can consistently succeed if he isn’t ahead in the count.
Then again, I didn’t think LeBlanc would be a decent starter ever entering this year, so he’s already proved me wrong once. Hopefully he can either prove me wrong again, or make the necessary adjustments.