Blue Jays finding their crisis management specialist in Dominic Leone

Nick Ashbourne
Dominic Leone is playing a far larger role in the Blue Jays bullpen than expected. (Peter Joneleit/Cal Sport Med/REX/Shutterstock)

On Monday night the Toronto Blue Jays found themselves in the midst of a potentially game-defining jam in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and one out in a low-scoring contest.

Coming off Marcus Stroman’s complete game the previous afternoon, John Gibbons had his whole bullpen to choose from and the man he tasked with the job was – somewhat surprisingly – former waiver claim Dominic Leone.

Although the game didn’t ultimately go Toronto’s way, the choice proved to be apt. With the game in the balance, the 25-year-old punched out Danny Espinosa and then engaged in an eight-pitch brawl with Martin Maldonado that ended on a fastball that missed the glove, but wound up perfectly placed down-and-in to end the threat. Courtesy Sportsnet:

Cleaning up other pitchers’ messes is becoming a pattern for Leone, who signed with the Blue Jays as a long shot and broke camp with them looking like a guy destined for mop up duty. Although the young right-hander had a strong spring, the 7.07 ERA and -0.7 WAR he’d posted over the last two years didn’t speak to someone who could handle crucial situations.

Now Leone looks a lot more like the guy who broke in with the Seattle Mariners and looked like a closer of the future. Among Blue Jays relievers, he ranks first in Wins Above Replacement (0.4) and second in innings pitched behind only Joe Biagini. Over his 9.1 innings of work, he’s struck out 10 against three walks and just four hits.

That sample is far too small to make any predictions about where Leone’s season is going and his recent body of work still invites healthy and deserved skepticism. However, perhaps more interesting than his recent success is how the right-hander is being used.

Gibbons has always been a fan of defined roles for his bullpen and Leone seems to have settled in as a crisis management position. Men have been on base six of the seven times he’s entered a game for a total of 10 base runners. Only two of those 10 have come around to score – both on sacrifice flies. Leone has faced 11 batters with runners in scoring position and they’ve hit .000/.000/.000.

It would be ridiculous to claim the right-hander has some kind of knack for these situations based on these small-sample results, but it’s clear that Gibbons envisions him as someone who can handle them. So far he’s looked the part, whether he continues to do so is something of a mystery, although there are indications he’s evolving as a pitcher.

Leone is starting to become cutter-dominant, a trend that seemingly began last year:

That’s potentially a positive sign because he’s having more and more success missing bats with the pitch:

With this information in mind, there’s reason to expect he’ll perform differently than he did during his miserable 2015 and 2016 campaigns because his approach is different. That’s no guarantee he’s ready to be a reliable high-leverage contributor for the first time in three years, but there’s reason for optimism.

Another indicator that his performance so far might not be a fluke is the fact hitters are having a difficult time making hard contact against him. Only 18.2 percent of batted balls against him have been of the “Hard” hit variety, per FanGraphs, and he’s kept exit velocity against below league-average all year:

Right now Leone is striking out more than a hitter per inning, keeping the walks under control and forcing weak contact from opponents. That’s pretty much all you can ask for from a pitcher.

As a result, he’s earned a very important role in the Blue Jays bullpen, one he played perfectly on Monday. He may well hit a rough patch in the months to come, but until he does John Gibbons knows who to call when there’s a jam his team needs to escape.