When I was looking over Chris Leroux’s stats for the 2013 Annual, I noticed two red flags in his pitch selection. First, I noticed that he was leaning more on his slider in 2012. In 2010 and 2011 the right-hander threw his fastball around 63% of the time. In 2012, that number dropped down to 41.8%.
The second thing I noticed was that Leroux’s fastball velocity dropped. He was averaging around 93-94 MPH in 2010-2011, but dropped to an average of 91.2 in 2012. My initial thought to these two notes was that the velocity drop and the increased use of his slider could have been due to his 2012 injury.
Leroux was hurt in 2012, suffering from a grade two pectoral strain. I asked him today about relying on his slider in 2012, and the drop in velocity. He confirmed that both things were due to the injury. His fastball wasn’t as powerful, which forced him to lean on his slider more.
“I relied more on my other pitches,” Leroux said. “I learned how to pitch, which was kind of beneficial. This year my strength’s back, and I won’t be relying on my off-speed pitches as much. I can use my sinker more and my four seam fastball, and I’ll be able to sneak it past guys.
“I definitely feel stronger. I worked pretty hard this off-season trying to get that back. It was a little disappointing when I was coming back last year. I would look at the radar gun and it was four miles per hour slower than it was the previous year. That’s a little bit disappointing, but I guess that happens when you’ve got a significant injury just like I had. It feels really good now. My velocity’s pretty much back to where it was in 2011. I’m excited.”
The right-hander is out of options and currently competing for a spot in the bullpen. In his limited time with the Pirates he’s put up some strong ratios. In 41 innings he has an 8.8 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and an 0.2 HR/9. Those ratios are what you want to see from a reliever. They led to a good ERA in 2011, but poor results in 2012, despite improvements with his strikeouts and walks. His xFIP in 2011 was 3.22 and improved to 2.81 in 2012, both in limited appearances.
Leroux has worked as a starter in the minors, but needs his changeup working to be effective in that role. He pitched as a starter in the Dominican Winter Leagues in the 2011-12 off-season, mostly to allow him to use his off-speed pitches more often. He moved away from the changeup last year after his injury, focusing more on his fastball/slider combo.
“It’s not something that’s totally gone, but it’s definitely my third pitch,” Leroux said of the change. “I can still throw it. It’s still in my back pocket if I need it.”
Leroux’s ratios look like he could handle any role in the bullpen. His experience starting and his success in the upper levels leads to the idea that e could handle the occasional start in the majors. Leroux is open for any role, including the occasional start.
“I’ve never said that I deserve a shot at starting. I’ve never said I should be in the starting rotation,” Leroux said. “If they need me, I hope that they think I’m capable of jumping in there for a spot start. That’s all I can really ask for.”
He will be starting in the next few weeks, taking the mound for Team Canada on March 9th against Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. Leroux will be throwing two innings in his first outing, and 2-3 innings in his second appearance.
“We can only throw three innings the first game, so that’s not even a big jump from what I’m doing here,” Leroux said of how that fits in with his work in Spring Training. He will only be gone from camp for a few days, returning to Bradenton around Sunday night after his first start. The time away from camp could be beneficial to him, giving him some extra innings that he might have trouble finding during Spring Training. That could help him as he competes for one of the final bullpen spots in Pittsburgh.
“If I pitch well, it’s going to help my cause. If I pitch like, you know, it’s not going to help my cause,” Leroux said of is opportunity in the WBC. “At the end of the day it’s up to me and what I do and how I look out there.”
Burnett’s Preparation for Spring Training
After today’s two inning start, A.J. Burnett talked about his Spring Training preparation. A lot of pitchers will start throwing bullpen sessions before arriving in camp. Citing old age, Burnett said that he doesn’t throw a bullpen until he arrives in Spring Training.
“I started doing that about four years ago,” Burnett said. “It’s a long year. Spring starts up earlier every year. I can’t imagine throwing seven pens before I show up. I’d be done right now.”
The right-hander was working with his fastball and changeup today. His next start might also be strictly fastball and changeup, depending on how the curveball is coming along.
“It just depends on how my hook feels in my bullpen,” Burnett said of the curveball. “Good thing is it’s normally there when I need it. It’s just a matter of when we can bring it out. There were a couple of times today I was hoping to see a number two go down, but I knew it wouldn’t go down.”
Burnett pitched two innings today, giving up four runs, one earned, on three hits with no walks and one strikeout. The three earned runs were the result of three errors in the first two innings, along with a wild pitch from Burnett. The right-hander erased one of the errors in the first inning with a pick-off at first base, but the two errors in the second led to three additional runs.
**The Pirates lost 8-2 against the Rays, with the game featuring a lot of sloppy plays. The team had four errors, although the only unearned runs were the three in the second inning.
**Gerrit Cole threw two innings, giving up one run on a walk and a hit, while striking out one. Cole’s lone run came in his first inning of work. He walked Desmond Jennings, then allowed Jennings to steal second and third. Clint Hurdle talked about Cole’s first official outing this Spring: “It was good. Velocity was there. His command, I’m going to say it was pretty good. His composure was good and he kept his pace on mark. I think he got to understand the importance of controlling the running game. Game speed, game circumstances.”
**A.J. Burnett picked off a runner at first base today. After the game he talked about the importance of controlling the running game: “It’s a big focus on our pitching staff this year. You can’t put all the blame on the catchers. We had a lot of work we had to do from last year.”
**Hurdle talked about Burnett’s stuff after the game: “I thought the fastball velocity was in a good place. I thought he got the ball in, both left-handers and right-handers on occasion. He threw some very good changeups that had some very good bottom to them.”
**Jose Tabata had a good day at the plate, coming in as a second half replacement. Tabata went 2-for-2, with both of his hits going for doubles.
**The only other extra base hit for the Pirates came from Pedro Alvarez, who hit an opposite field line drive over the left fielder’s head and off the wall for a double in the second.