In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon decided to forgo paella and siestas for………………….? It better be epic because there are not many things I’d leave for paella and siestas. Does the Fountain of Youth count? Because that’s the story. Historians call it a myth, but what else could it have been? Anyways, after setting sail on a more-than-three-hour-tour, Ponce de Leon and his merry band of men ended in Florida, where they encountered the natives, a wrinkly group of leather-faced men and women carrying golf clubs. Repulsed at the sight, the Spaniards scurried back to their boats and made their way west, until they met the Mississippi River and eventually settled up-river in St. Louis, where they obviously found the Fountain of Youth because Daniel Ponce de Leon is a 27-year-old pitcher for the Cardinals and has a 10.8 K/9 in 31.2 major league innings this season. I don’t usually write up pitchers in this column because most of the add/drop activity is due to streaming and two-start weeks, but Ponce de Leon intrigured me, so here we are. Plus, I delved into catchers last week and the Mrs. says I have to change it up from time to time.
PdL was drafted by the Cardinals in the ninth round of the 2014 MLB draft. He is 6′ 4″ 185 pounds and is right-handed. The arsenal consists of a 93 mph fastball, cutter, curve, and change. He did pitch 33 major league innings last season and compiled a 2.73 ERA with an 8.45 K/9 and 3.55 BB/9. The xFIP was 4.36. Looking at his entire professional career, though, he has consistently outpitched his xFIP in every season. That Fountain gave more than just youth.
From 2017-2019, PdL accrued 180.2 inning in Triple-A. The BB/9 was in the 4-range, HR/9 was under 1, BABIP was in the low-to-mid .200s, and the strand rate was in the mid-to-high 70s range. The two outliers were the 10.28 K/9 in 2018 and 87% strand rate in 2017.
Now that the history lesson is over, let’s dig into this year’s numbers so far.
I already mentioned the 10.8 K/9 in 31.2 innings above. The walk rate is 3.13 and he’s giving up 1.14 HR/9. The ERA is 1.99, while the xFIP is 3.88. Ok, we have to dig into the strikeout rate, but the walk rate looks fine and the ERA/xFIP discrepancy shouldn’t be a surprise.
The BABIP is .175 and the strand rate is 93.5%!!!! <insert googly eyes gif>
For shits and giggles, I wanted to see the leaders in both categories so far this season. Justin Verlander has a BABIP of .186!!! Ha! The next lowest is Yonny Chirinos at .229. WTF?! As for LOB%, what do you know? It’s our good friend Justin Verlander at 88.6%. Unless you think PdL is Verlander 2.0, then some negative regression should be in the works.
Looking at the batted ball data, PdL allows both ground balls and fly balls at a 40-ish percent clip. He’s been great at limiting line drives (10.4%) and hard contact (31.3%), though. Statcast data shows a 7.5% barrel rate and 3% solid contact %.
The plate discipline numbers show a 11.4% swinging strike rate and 34.1% chase rate. Both numbers are very good, as they would put PdL in the top 35 for swinging strike rate and top 25 for swinging strike rate. Contact rates aren’t bad, as the numbers are 81.4% in the zone and 76.7% in general. It’s the 70.2% outside-the-zone contact number that intrigues me. PdL is getting batters to swing outside the zone and make weak contact. Plus, he has an elite strikeout rate. Hmmmmm…..
When I check out the splits, he’s been absolutely dominating lefties: 16.34 K/9 and 47.9 K%. Against righties, those numbers are 7.11 K/9 and 21.7 K%. All the homers he’s allowed have been to righties. The pitch distribution shows that he’s been throwing the fastball 74.77% of the time to lefties with the changeup at 13.51% and curveball 11.26%. Against righties, the fastball percentage is 67.38%, while the cutter is the secondary pitch at 21.63%. Note to self: do not start against righty-heavy lineups.
With that said, the BABIP and LOB% numbers against both righties and lefties scare me. .222 and 90.9% against lefties and .156 and 96.2% against righties. Those are just unsustainable. I don’t think he gets clobbered, because he can miss bats and induces soft contact, but regression is coming. And it could come in either of his next two starts. PdL is slated to pitch against Pittsburgh on Wednesday. While they do have some lefties in the lineup, as a team, they are one of the stingiest teams when it comes to striking out. In addition, as it stands now, PdL would be slated to start the Pirates in the following start as well, which could give the Pirates hitters some familiarity with his stuff and sequencing.
The Trash/Treasure designation is always a difficult one because it can be utilized in so many different contexts. For PdL, I’m going to label him TRASH in the short term, but he could be a useful pitcher for the long term in the right matchups.