Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wade LeBlanc and Line Drives

Just to illustrate how slim news is about Major League Baseball around Thanksgiving, this writer finds himself writing about John Baker and Wade LeBlanc. The catcher and pitcher (respectively) were swapped in a deal between the San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins yesterday. Baker was an effective offensive player for the Marlins in 2008 and 2009 but scored weakly on defense as far as we can tell from catching defensive metrics. Baker underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 and is trying to build back to his previous levels. The Marlins have already moved on in the catching department which made Baker expendable. But Baker is only 30 as a catcher when that position stays in relatively high demand so he could help the Padres. But Wade LeBlanc?

The catch phrase when LeBlanc pitched in 2011 was, "Duck!" Batted ball trajectories have been tracked since 2002 and since that time, no pitcher in baseball has thrown at least 70 innings in a season and has given up the 32.8 percent line drives LeBlanc gave up in 2011. Think about that for a second. Almost one out of every three batters that put the ball in play off of Wade LeBlanc hit a rope somewhere. Why is this a bad thing? The average of all major league pitchers (in 130,940 balls in play) in 2011 was 18.7 percent line drives allowed. Why is this important? Because the collective OPS for major league batters on all line drives in 2011 was 1.689 with a batting average of .722 (!) and a slugging percentage of .971. Yikes! In other words, line drives will kill you. Line drives are how most hitters get paid.

Certainly, this can be a fluke statistic. LeBlanc's line drive percentages each season since 2008 go like this: 21.9 percent, 16.7 percent, 19.2 percent and then the 32.8 percent last year. But there is enough other stuff to paint a bleak pitcher picture. LeBlanc has a career ERA of 4.54 and a FIP of 4.85 despite pitching half his games in a pitchers park in San Diego his entire career. His home run per nine inning rate for his career is 1.35. That's not good. His hits per nine rate for his career stands at 9.4 and his career WHIP is 1.425.

And those numbers just mentioned are pretty compared to LeBlanc's away splits. Wade LeBlanc has a career ERA at San Diego of 2.97. On the road, his ERA for his career is 6.16. Oof. To top it all off, LeBlanc isn't a power arm and he isn't a finesse pitcher. He has historically only struck out batters at a 6.29 per nine clip. In 2011, that figure fell to 5.76. A guy with a fastball around 86.6 MPH needs to throw strikes, right? But LeBlanc has a career walks per nine of 3.47.

Add it all up and LeBlanc isn't a very good pitcher. That he's pitched parts of four years in the majors might be chalked up to the Padres selecting him in the second round once upon a time and the fact that he throws from the left side. In 291 career innings, Wade LeBlanc has a fWAR of -0.3 and an OPS+ of 81. The Marlins must have seen something they like to trade for him. But for this observer, right-handed pitchers who throw like Wade LeBlanc don't last as long as left-handers do. And if he has another season for the Marlins in 2012 like he did for the Padres in 2011, the Marlins' fielders better put some extra padding in their gloves just in case.

2 comments:

Robbie Knopf said...

Great points about LeBlanc and his line drive rates, but here's something to think about: Baseball-Reference, which had LeBlanc allowing a slightly lower but still awful 30% LD% in 2011, has splits by bated ball type (which it calls "Hit Trajectory"). It says that LeBlanc allowed a .658 BAbip on line drives in 2011 suspiciously lower than the league BAbip of .709 on liners, and he allowed not a single home run and 15 doubles out of the 50 line drive hits he allowed. The 15/50 X/H% is just below the league X/H% of 31% of line drives, but 2% of line drives in the 2011 NL were home runs compared to LeBlanc's 0% as well. It's certainly not a good sign that LeBlanc allowed such a high line drive rate in 2011, but it doesn't necessarily mean he's an awful pitcher. He allowed a just about league average 19% LD% from 2008 to 2010 in a much bigger sample size. I would like to see the MPH off bat stat that you suggested in your comment on my Ichiro post (http://isportsweb.com/2011/09/08/ichiros-fall-not-as-precarious-as-think/) and Mike Fast elaborated on at BP (www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=15532), but I think that LeBlanc is certainly better than that 30% LD% would seem to indicate and the Marlins are not complete idiots for trading for him.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

All terrific comments, Robbie, and well said. Certainly more room for study, though the anomaly of his high line drive percentage compared to his previous stats is noted. Thanks.