The Padres improved to 17-10 last night and are, in my mind, undoubtedly the biggest surprise story of the 2010 season thus far. This fast start is largely in part of fantastic pitching. The Padres pitching staff carried a 2.92 ERA and a higher but still stellar 3.74 FIP into their contest against the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday night.
Tuesday’s starter Wade LeBlanc has been a large part of the tremendous performance. He held the Rockies to two runs on seven hits in six innings, striking out four and walking two, not allowing a home run. Remarkably enough, this was quite easily LeBlanc’s worst start – it was the first one in which he had allowed more than one run or had a negative WPA.
LeBlanc’s ERA skyrocketed up to 1.15 from 0.52 as a result of this start. His FIP is also no longer sub-2.00. LeBlanc has mainly succeeded to due a ridiculous 95.5% LOB% in his first three starts – only one of the 24 runners that have reached base off him have scored. Still, we’ve seen some very encouraging things in LeBlanc’s peripherals that suggest that he can be a successful pitcher in the major leagues.
LeBlanc’s strikeout rates in the major leagues in 2008 and 2009 were a very low 5.91 and 5.83 respectively. Given that LeBlanc is not an extreme control pitcher, these rates simply weren’t high enough for LeBlanc to produce at the major league level, and he compiled -0.8 WAR in those two seasons and 67.2 IP with the Padres. That rate is way up this year, up to 7.71 K/9, even after last night’s slightly lacking four strikeout night. That’s not a terribly surprising increase, as LeBlanc is still young, at age 25, and had a strikeout rate above 8.00 in two stints in AAA, as well as in A+ and AA. This increase is supported by an increase in swinging strikes, up to 8.8% from 8.2% in 2009 and 7.7% in 2008. LeBlanc is also walking fewer batters, at 2.31 BB/9, down from a 4.02 career rate.
Obviously, LeBlanc isn’t this good. He’s not going to be able to constantly strand runners. His stuff – an 86.7 MPH fastball, a cutter, a changeup, and a slider – likely isn’t good enough to strike out 7.7 batters per nine innings. He’s been a fly ball pitcher his whole career – 42.8% rate – and that hasn’t changed at all in 2010. However, the improvements we’ve seen so far suggest that LeBlanc has the potential to become a league average pitcher, and likely is no longer the below-replacement level pitcher that has been forced to bounce between the majors and the minors. For now, though, he’s getting the job done in a big way for the 1st Place San Diego Padres.