The Curious Case of Wade LeBlanc

Photo Credit: MLB Trade Rumors

by: Rich Daniels

The road to success is not standardized, making it one of the most individual experiences life has to offer. 

In professional baseball, a game based largely on failure, success is often decided by the slimmest of margins. Seattle Mariners pitcher Wade LeBlanc has experienced what it is like to be relegated to those margins all too well.

LeBlanc was originally drafted in the 36th round of the 2003 draft by the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays which will tell you immediately that he is a player getting long-in-the-tooth. He chose instead to play at the University of Alabama and was taken in the second round of the 2006 draft by the San Diego Padres. 

Being a Top 50 pick brought with it high expectations and a quick trip through the minors. The lefty made his big league debut just over two years later in September of 2008. LeBlanc spent parts of the next three seasons with the Padres compiling 48 starts, a record of 16-19 and an ERA over four.

Then the real difficult part of his journey began

Moves to the Marlins, Astros, Angels, Yankees, Mariners (the first time) and Pirates ensued from 2012 to 2017. LeBlanc only spent an entire season on a big league roster in 2012 during that stretch. Six seasons of bouncing up and down from the minors, sometimes pitching well enough to make a team out of spring training but not able to sustain enough success to last. The label of “Journeyman Left-hander” came to precede his name.

A second stint with the Mariners this season looked to at least extend his career a bit longer and keep the slim chance of Major League success alive. 

A long relief role was the bit of daylight LeBlanc needed to stay in the big leagues. Then a spate of injuries to the Seattle rotation put the team in dire need of someone to take the ball every fifth day, temporarily. LeBlanc was called upon to fill that gap and, for the first time in half-a-dozen years, he seized the opportunity.

It started with four scoreless innings against the A’s on May 3rd. Then five one-run innings against the Blue Jays on May 9th and six shutout innings against the Twins on May 14th signaled that something different was playing out. 

Since that start on May 3rd, LeBlanc has allowed more than three earned runs in a start only once.

Now with four wins against no losses and an ERA of 3.19, LeBlanc has buoyed the Mariners through a rough stretch of injuries and led the team into a hot streak that has them breathing down the collective necks of the defending World Series Champion Astros. 

But how and why at the age of 33 has the veteran pitcher suddenly become so tough to hit?

LeBlanc’s most recent start against the Angels on July 3rd is a prime example of what has built his run of dominance. Armed with a fastball that sits at 86 and touches 88, the veteran pounds the strike zone with everything in his arsenal often with breaking pitches in the mid-70’s. Seven innings, 3 hits allowed, one earned run. 

Basically, he works fast, throws strikes and changes speeds which allows him to challenge hitters with any pitch at any time. With a defense behind him that stays sharp by only having to wait a few seconds before the next pitch. 

Keeping the defense involved is a huge factor for LeBlanc in that he has notched more than five strikeouts in a start only once. When it comes right down to it, trust has been the key factor here. 

Trust in his own ability, namely his breaking pitches, and trust in the defense behind him.

However, the adjustment hasn’t been completely in LeBlanc’s own approach. Mariners manager Scott Servais and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre have become attuned to their resurgent left-hander’s wavelength. 

While other pitchers are limited by pitch counts or innings pitched, Servais has correctly chosen to limit the number of times opposing hitters face LeBlanc. 

While the veteran’s highest pitch count for the season is 98 and longest outing at 7 and two-thirds innings, Servais has adhered to the simple rule of LeBlanc facing the batting order three times in any game. Without knockout stuff to make opposing bats miss, the southpaw must pitch to contact which invites the best hitters in the world to gradually dial in. That opportunity to familiarize was never more dangerous than in LeBlanc’s back-to-back starts against Boston last month where he shut the Red Sox out for nearly eight innings with a season-high nine strikeouts in the first start, then suffered his worst bludgeoning of the season six days later giving up eleven hits and six earned runs before being lifted in the fifth inning.

As usual success in a team sport often requires many people while most of the credit goes to one. 

However, LeBlanc’s success is representative of the Mariners’ achievements so far this year. The team recognizes a good combination when it sees it. This week LeBlanc signed his first substantial contract since being a high draft pick, a one-year extension for next season that also includes performance bonuses and club/vesting options for three seasons after that. The total ceiling on the extension could reach $32 million over four years. An ample reward for battling through tough times and finally finding success just a month before turning 34.

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