By Jason Shetler
Wade LeBlanc was once a pretty well regarded draft prospect, with the San Diego Padres selecting him in the second round of the 2006 MLB Draft. LeBlanc was already a polished pitcher coming out of the University of Alabama, and joined the Padres rotation two years later. During his four seasons in San Diego from 2008 to 2011, he was a subpar starter, posting a 4.54 ERA, along with an 81 ERA+.
LeBlanc was traded to the Miami Marlins before the 2012 season. He pitched for them as a starter and reliever, but didn’t have much success there either, with an ERA of 4.30 and a 93 ERA+. LeBlanc also bounced around with the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels and New York Yankees, before pitching in Japan for the Saitama Seibu Lions in 2015.
Prior to the 2016 season, LeBlanc signed with the Toronto Blue Jays on a minor league deal. He pitched extremely well for AAA Buffalo, where he had a 1.71 ERA. The Seattle Mariners traded for LeBlanc in June, by giving the Blue Jays cash considerations. In 50 innings pitched with the Mariners, he posted a 4.50 ERA and an ERA+ of 91.
The Pirates were in need of some extra bullpen arms in September, and acquired LeBlanc from Seattle for cash. While LeBlanc only pitched 12 innings, he allowed just one earned run. This past offseason, the Pirates made a somewhat surprising decision, as they signed LeBlanc to a one-year deal for $800,000 to avoid arbitration, this after most viewed him as a non-tender candidate, since they already had lefties Tony Watson, Antonio Bastardo and Felipe Rivero entering 2017.
LeBlanc’s first strong appearance came on April 10th against the Cincinnati Reds, in which he pitched long relief, following a very short outing from Tyler Glasnow. He went 5.1 innings and allowed only one run. LeBlanc became the first Pirates reliever to go 5.1 innings in a nine inning game since Ron Villone (former Opening Day starter *facepalm*) in 2002. For the season, LeBlanc has been very good, as he’s put up a 2.33 ERA, a Fielding Independent Pitching of 2.72, a 0.75 WHIP, thanks in large part to a 1.4 BB/9, and a 53% groundball rate in 19.1 innings of work. While most relievers now throw very hard, LeBlanc is a soft tosser, registering an average fastball velocity of 86.8 mph. He actually seems to be benefiting from it, in regards to messing up a hitter’s timing. LeBlanc has gotten weak contact, with a 20% hard contact rate, which to this point is much better than his career rate of 27.5%. Hitters also aren’t driving the ball much off him, as Statcast has his average Exit Velocity with the fastball at 87.1 mph, lower than the MLB average at 89.7 mph. Another reason for LeBlanc’s good early season showing is his cutter, which FanGraphs’ Pitch Values rates as an above average pitch. From depth arm on the expanded September roster to now a playing an integral part as a full-time reliever in the Pirates bullpen, Wade LeBlanc appears to have finally found his niche.