Name: Wade LeBlanc
DOB: August 7, 1984
"His changeup is a swing-and-miss type pitch – they don't make contact with it that much," former Lake Elsinore and current San Antonio pitching coach Steve Webber said. "Once he settles in and commands his fastball a little bit better, I think he is going to take off."
In his first professional season, LeBlanc lasted just seven games and 21 innings in short-season Eugene before moving on to the Fort Wayne Wizards and the Midwest League.
He proved he was more than ready for such a move when he became the only pitcher on the club to win a playoff game. In fact, he was even better with the Wizards than he was in Eugene, allowing two runs or less in all but one outing.
Lake Elsinore is where he began the year and spun magic over 16 games, posting a 2.64 ERA and .212 average against. He limited the opposition to one earned run or less in 10 of those outings. The Alabama alumnus also posted a 25-inning scoreless streak in April and early May, capping it off with a one-hitter over six frames.
He was promoted to Double-A San Antonio in early July and appeared in another 12 games, including 11 starts, for the Missions.
"It started with Josh (Geer) and Cesar (Ramos) and then Eck (Mike Ekstrom) when he got in there and whoever we plugged in as we had some guys in and out," former San Antonio and current Portland manager Randy Ready began. "Here comes LeBlanc and he says, ‘I want to be part of this thing too. I am going to step up my game. Watch and see. Just watch me. I am going to back it up.' And he did."
Over 57.1 innings, LeBlanc posted a 7-3 record and a 3.45 ERA. He allowed two runs or less in eight of his 11 starts – but that was just the primer.
A big game pitcher who rises to the occasion, he turned it up a notch in the Texas League playoffs. After winning a playoff game last season, the lefty went 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA with in two playoff games this season, striking out 16 in 12 innings while allowing just one run and five hits.
"He is a pitcher," former Padres minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said. "He got better, his breaking ball got better, his velocity, comfort zone improved. He is never going to be a hard thrower but he locates, pitches above his stuff and is a winner."
Confidence on the hill is something that comes natural for LeBlanc. His demeanor and poise allow him to battle through the tough innings, as he is not easily rattled. In fact, he is often better with runners in scoring position, a staple of his two years of professional ball. He held the opposition to a .216 average in such situations across two leagues in 2007.
His ability to avoid the big inning affords him the opportunity to work deep into games. The Padres have been somewhat protective of him, knowing his durability will still net 150 innings a year.
The southpaw was extremely effective against batters on the same side, limiting lefties with his variety of pitches while coming inside with his fastball more consistently than last season. Left-handed batters managed a meager .187 batting average off him this year. He also has been more consistent in throwing strikes with his changeup to southpaws, something he had trouble locating in the past.
Nibbling at the corners has been one of his problems. He tries to be too fine with his fastball and does not have the command right now to spot it at will. The result is either catching too much of the plate or missing in spots that batters won't swing at, forcing him to pitch from behind in the count.
There are times when he will try and dial a fastball up a notch or two as well and he must learn to control his effort level and stay within his strengths. Normally, the fastball sits between 86 and 89 MPH.
Still, his use of two plus-changeups is the separator. If he can get ahead in the count, he uses the wipe away changeup to get them swinging over the ball. Imagine a 68 MPH pitch coming at you, where the bottom falls out, right after an 88 MPH fastball. The arm speed is the same. Your reactions think fastball and soon you are flailing out in front.
"LeBlanc's changeup is stupid," said catcher Colt Morton. "He's throwing his fastball at 87 to 88, and then his changeup is 68."
He posted four double-digit strikeout games on the year and averaged nearly a strikeout per inning across two leagues.
Early in the count he will use his second changeup to get a strike, using the same grip and arm motion but differing the pressure on his fingers to get different movement. Hitters know it is coming and still can't catch up to it.
"LeBlanc's change is going to take him to the majors, but his fastball command still isn't where it needs to be," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said.
The last offering is a curveball, a pitch with good depth but harder to control. He will bring out the hammer a handful of times each game and its effectiveness is buoyed by not being seen often.
"He has an outstanding changeup," Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano said. "When he gets his fastball down and with that changeup – it was tough to hit him. That changeup is a big league changeup. That is the difference for him. It is going to carry a long way.
"If he gets a little more movement on his fastball then it will be outstanding. Right now, he has the changeup, a good curveball, and, if he keeps the fastball down, he is tough."
His pitch sequences have continually improved, and he understands a hitter's tendencies and reacts accordingly.
"He was very confident when he took the mound," Ready said. "When Wade locates his fastball down in the zone and on both sides of the plate – that sets up his secondary stuff, which is above average. He had some success right away and was confident and really came up huge for us in the playoffs."
LeBlanc still comes to the plate with two different leg kicks with runners on base, mixing it up to keep the baserunners closer to first base.
He has a high leg kick that keeps his body aligned from the windup. He finds it easier to land his plant leg in the appropriate spot while driving off the mound with his hind leg.
He also uses a slide step but does not have the same pinpoint control, as he appears to be rushing to the plate, opening up his front side, trying to put more mustard on the ball.
"We talked a lot about controlling his effort level – understanding his delivery and staying in line and understanding his effort level," former San Antonio and current Portland pitching coach Glenn Abbott said. "‘What difference does it make if you throw it 88 as opposed to 86?' He said, ‘Not much.' I said, ‘Exactly.'
"If you go from 86 to 93 now that is a difference. To hitters, two miles doesn't make a difference. He just got better and better and better. He gained a lot of confidence. It made him think more."
ETA: LeBlanc seems poised to begin the year in Portland and his baseball savvy and plus changeups should make him a candidate to help San Diego sometime in 2008 – so much so that there had been talk of LeBlanc manning the fifth spot in the rotation from the start. When he arrives in San Diego, odds are he won't ever be jettisoned back to the minors.
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