It isn’t often 24th-round draft picks create much buzz, but Jose De Leon is doing his best to change that by striking out all of the hitters in the minor leagues (almost literally).
The Dodgers drafted De Leon in 2013 with the 724th pick. The native Puerto Rican was young for a college pitcher, as he began his pro career with the Arizona Rookie League Dodgers. He finished up with Ogden in the Pioneer League, where he was greeted rudely: 12.10 ERA, 35 hits in 19 1/3 innings. His second time through the Pioneer League was much different.
In 54 1/3 innings, the right-hander posted a 2.65 ERA, 2.96 FIP, 1.16 WHIP and a fantastic 12.8 K/9. His second start of the season was one of his best, throwing seven innings of 1-run ball with 12 strikeouts and no walks. That performance earned him his first Pioneer League Pitcher of the Week honor. After his first game, he never gave up more than three earned runs (twice) in nine outings and had seven games in which he recorded seven strikeouts or more. He won his second pitcher of the week award after a 7-inning, 3-hit, 11-strikeout game on Aug. 8 — a day after turning 22 years old. That earned him a trip to Great Lakes, where he’s been even better.
De Leon hasn’t yet faced many hitters in the Midwest League, but he has noticed a difference.
“I have only faced two teams in the Midwest League so I really have not noticed any drastic change, but obviously, hitters here have a better plan,” De Leon said.
Since I talked to him, he had his third outing on Sunday (5 IP 5 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 9 K). But his second start for the Loons was the one that really put him on the prospect map. De Leon struck out 14 batters (a high for any Dodger minor-leaguer this season) on Aug. 19 against Fort Wayne. Somehow, that performance did not earn him pitcher of the week honors.
Since his debut season, De Leon has made a few changes to improve his performance.
“My delivery, my direction to the plate and my placement in the rubber (have changed),” De Leon said.
The Dodgers’ player development department is really good at helping pitchers improve their mechanics and deliveries, which is key when looking at a pitcher. Those changes have accounted for a 30:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio since getting to Low-A. Overall, he has a 5.35 K/BB ratio. After watching some video on him, his delivery is pretty clean. That bodes well for repetition and future success.
De Leon uses a fastball that sits in the 91-94 MPH range and maxes out at 96 MPH. The thing that separates it from many other fastballs in the organization is the movement. It’s a running fastball that hasn’t yet correlated to a high ground ball rate, but it could. If nothing else, it has enough movement to get hitters to miss it or make weak contact with it.
He also throws a low-80s slider that sometimes has a curveball look to it. It flashes plus potential. But De Leon said his favorite pitch to throw is his 84-86 MPH changeup. With a nice 3-pitch mix, it’s easy to see why there should be excitement surrounding this kid.
De Leon has a career 11.6 K/9, and he’s not exactly sure why his strikeout rate has jumped from 9.0 in 2013 to 13.5 in 2014.
“I don’t know, I think my pitches are a little better this year,” De Leon said. “I’m feeling more comfortable, my delivery is cleaner this year. Those could be factors.”
That, and familiarity with professional baseball could also factor into his increased strikeout rate. Either way, it’s cause for optimism for his potential.
The minor-league season is almost over, and De Leon said he has a few goals for the rest of the season and the offseason.
“I’m just trying to finish strong, healthy, and win a ring,” De Leon said. “For the offseason, I would have to wait and see what plans the Dodgers have for me, but I would love to play winter ball in Puerto Rico.”
Getting the 6’2, 185-pound De Leon some work in the winter leagues could allow him to progress more quickly through the organization. My best guess is he should begin 2015 in Rancho Cucamonga with a midseason promotion to Double-A more than likely.
He grew up a Red Sox fan (boo), partly because of Dodgers’ broadcaster and former major leaguer Nomar Garciaparra.
“My godfather is from Boston and the first number I wore was (No.) 5 and I played shortstop, so my coach called me ‘Nomar,'” De Leon said. “I really did not have a clue about who Nomar was, so when I found out, I started following them.”
De Leon might not show up on many prospect lists this offseason, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a kid to keep an eye on next season. If he handles High-A with some ease and gets to Double-A in his age-22 season while missing bats, watch out.
He pitches Friday night for the Loons in his final game of the 2014 season.