Anyone who spends significant time around pitchers will hear the phrase "fastball command", which is revolves around being able to place the ball where it is intended to go. Without fastball command, no matter how spectacular any of the secondary pitches may be, the most common pitch all pitchers throw is a fastball, and without precision, it is a quick ticket out of baseball.
LeBlanc, the Padres second-round pick in 2006 out of the University of Alabama, has always been an unusual pitcher, relying more on his ability to offset a batter's timing than to blow them away with velocity.
In his first two years in the organization, he was able to thrive by throwing a four-seam fastball, a changeup, which he could easily add and subtract from, and a "show-me" curveball. He experienced great success averaging nearly a strikeout an inning and allowing less hits than innings pitched, two very good metrics for a starting pitcher.
The problem was the Padres brain trust didn't believe LeBlanc's repertoire would be able to get major league batters out by either outguessing them or getting ahead with a straight four-seam fastball that sits in the high-80s.
Specifically, they believed LeBlanc needed a second fastball, one that wasn't straight and would help him get to his changeup, which is graded as a plus-plus pitch. The solution was to get him to develop a two-seam fastball, which would prevent batters from sitting on the four-seamer.
The problem was it never took.
"I just never really got comfortable throwing the two-seamer," said LeBlanc, who is having one of the better camps in major league spring training. "I never could really control it and just had a lot of trouble throwing it for strikes."
LeBlanc struggled between Triple-A Portland and San Diego in 2008 and 2009, attempting to throw the two-seamer consistently, never gaining the confidence necessary to execute a very difficult pitch.
After another two bad major league starts in June of last year, where he saw his ERA balloon to 14.54, he saw his future opportunities dwindling.
"When I went back down to Portland after getting beat up in San Diego I told Abby [Portland pitching coach Glenn Abbott] that something had to change."
LeBlanc and Abbott ditched the two-seamer and decided to try the cutter, a pitch which the left-handed LeBlanc found that he had much more control over and solved one of his bigger problems, how to keep right-handed hitters honest on the inside part of the plate.
"It is just a much more comfortable pitch for me to throw and I have much more confidence in my ability to throw it for strikes.
"When I pitch, I try to be very precise and need to know where the pitch is supposed to end up."
After some initial growing pains in July, LeBlanc had one of his better months in Portland in August, holding batter to a .209 batting average with a 25/6 K/BB ratio and allowing only 24 hits in 30.2 innings.
The Padres brought LeBlanc back, which may have been his last real shot, and this time, he didn't disappoint.
While his performance was still below what he wanted to do – especially in issuing free passes – he held the opposition to a .200 batting average with a 2.48 ERA while winning two of his five starts against no losses.
"It was great coming up and finally getting close to being able to perform the way I wanted too and helped me to build going into this spring."
LeBlanc is in a battle for a fifth slot in the rotation but has pitched well enough he may have forced his way into the bullpen, if he doesn't make the rotation. Through the last weeks of spring training he has only allowed four earned runs in 20 innings and has been earning raves from everyone in camp.
As impressive as LeBlanc's September and spring numbers have been what may be even more impressive was his ability to bounce back from some tough times in Triple-A and the big leagues where he saw his dreams and career hang in the balance.
"What really got me through all the tough times was my relationship with God," LeBlanc said. "I knew he brought me here for a reason, I just had to work through it with his help."
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