St. Louis Cardinals: Dominic Leone will have a bounce back year in 2019

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 19: Dominic Leone #55 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on April 19, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Cardinals 8-5. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 19: Dominic Leone #55 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on April 19, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Cardinals 8-5. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /
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St. Louis Cardinals’ relief pitcher, Dominic Leone was acquired last offseason and came into the 2018 season with high hopes. After taking a step back in 2018, let’s look at why he should return to form in 2019.

Back in mid-January of 2018, the St. Louis Cardinals surprised fans by moving on from their “Ferrari” of a player in Randal Grichuk. In a trade that send the up and down outfielder to Toronto, the Cardinals acquired the then 26-year-old reliever Dominic Leone as part of the deal. Leone was expected to contribute heavily to the Cardinals’ then (and still now) wavering bullpen.

Leone came to the St. Louis Cardinals coming off a career year in which he had a 10.36 K/9 average and just a 2.48 ERA. Leone was not even close to replicating those numbers in 2018, mostly due to a bicep nerve issue that only allowed the pitcher to pitch in 29 games. In those 29 appearances Leone pitched to the tune of a 4.50 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP.

Now Leone obviously wasn’t healthy. Pitching is an extremely feel-related position, and if your pitching arm continually goes numb it’s not surprising to see a dip in production. It’s impossible to tell when Leone was truly healthy or not, but what we can do is look into where his numbers took a back slide and see what that may mean for 2019.

The strange thing that did not change for Leone’s pitching profile in 2018 was his pitch velocity. You would think that someone dealing with an arm issue would see a dip in fastball velo, but none of Leone’s pitches changed more than .5 mph on average. In my head that alone is a good sign for 2019.

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The biggest problem in 2018 was that Leone was simply not as deceptive as he was in 2017. This is evident in statistics like zone swing percentage and zone contact percentage.

First looking at zone swing, in 2017, Leone’s zone swing percentage was 65.9% and that number jumped to 75.1%. A 10% jump in any category instantly screams outlier especially when his career zone swing percentage is 67%. This alone doesn’t necessarily mean he was less deceptive, just that Leone’s pitches in the zone were swung at more. What it does mean that he is less deceptive is that his contact rate jumped up about 2% paired with a drop in K/9.

The other statistical outlier for Leone in 2018 was his groundball percentage. Known as a “ground ball guy,” in 2017, it sat at 40.2% which was down even from his career rate of 45%. In 2018, it dropped more than 10% to 29.6%. This jump is way to large for it to be sustainable moving forward.

This gives us a more full picture of the change from 2017 to 2018 that we saw Leone make. Plummets or jumps of more than 10% in any statistical category normally signal that the change is not going to stick. Players just rarely fall off a cliff as it’s normally a semi-linear decline curve and these drastic statistical changes suggest Leone will return to form.

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None of this means for sure that Leone will be back to his former self in 2019, but these statistical anomalies do suggest that the changes here are not going to be a trend. The Cardinals need Leone and his arm in the bullpen to produce for 2019 as the bullpen was the Cardinals’ weakest link in 2018.

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