Buffa: Why Dominic Leone should be the Cardinals closer

He's quite a story. A hot shot upon entry, crash-landed in the desert, before awakening in Canada. Now, Leone calls St. Louis home and looks like a gift from the Blue Jays. He's arbitration eligible next winter, so he has to thinking about a big season.

Baseball can beat you up, year after year. No one knows that more than Dominic Leone. The 26-year-old has encountered a fair share of turbulence, ups and downs in his career, but one thing that hasn't wavered is a truly electric arm.

It hasn't always been nice to him though.

The St. Louis Cardinals bullpen arm blasted onto the Majors back in 2014 with the Seattle Mariners, posting a 3.07 FIP with a 9.5 strikeouts/per nine innings out the bullpen. Then, he hit a brick wall. Leone split time between Seattle and Arizona, pitching just 15 innings, where he walked as many guys (9) as he struck out.

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2016 wasn't any smoother. Leone allowed 45 hits in 27 innings, posting a 6.32 ERA and looking more lost than ever. Lefties were blasting him and he wasn't able to make adjustments. The Blue Jays claimed him off waivers in Nov. 2016, hoping to get a piece of low-hanging bullpen fruit for their upcoming season. They got one of the best setup men in baseball.

Everything wasn't just better; Leone's pitching got ruthless all of a sudden, returning to its 2014 efficiency with some extra polish thrown in. The FIP dropped from 6.32 to 2.94 and the strikeout rate was up to 29% with a much higher innings count. The home run rate dropped and the catcher's expression brightened after receiving pitches.

This spring, nothing has changed. Leone's lights out stuff has endured so far, and his name has fallen into the closer's role. When you throw hard and get results, the manager wants to call you last.

Before I tell you why Leone should get the first crack at the closer role, let me try to explain how Leone found his way back.

The meticulous baseball detective, Joe Schwarz from The Athletic and Birds on The Black, broke it down back in January shortly after Leone's arrival in the trade with Toronto for Randal Grichuk. Schwarz noted that Leone wasn't just using his fastball more often in 2017 than the previous two years, he was locating it differently. Leone was throwing it up-and-in to right-handed hitters and putting a bit more heat on the pitch.

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It all comes down to location in pitching, especially for a reliever. Unlike starters, bullpen arms don't have a long rope to work with once they enter a game. They can't afford to waste pitches or take too many chances with their secondary pitches. Leone's bread and butter is the fastball, a pitch that shrunk bats to the tune of a .406 slugging percentage last year.

Leone was more consistent with the fastball in 2017, but also cut down on the usage of the sinker and slider, while raising the number of cutters thrown. You don't need four pitches to be a successful setup man or closer; perfect a pitch with a backup plan and those three outs are yours.

Leone is the bullpen equivalent of free agent starter Alex Cobb. Both pitchers took a step back and isolated their deadliest pitches in 2017 to reboot their careers.

Leone could be a vital boost to the Cardinals bullpen, with an effect settling in quicker than other new arrivals. He should be the closer and here are a few easy to understand reasons.

  • High strikeout rate. Leone doesn't mess around, throwing the heater at a consistent 95 mph clip and moving it around he wants to at around 89 mph. At his best, Leone's strikeout rate sits around 27%. That's deadly.
  • Leone doesn't walk many guys. He's only allowed 69 total in his career. You won't get a tiresome leadoff runner with this guy.
  • No long ball special with Leone. He only allowed 6 home runs in 70 innings last year.
  • Hitters can't find the sweet spot. Leone's line drive percentage was a meager 17.8% last year. He also get an equal amount of fly balls and groundballs (both around 40%).
  • He is equally tough on lefties and righties, while being strict at home and on the road.
  • The Cardinals need some order in their bullpen, and Leone fits the 9th inning bill.

Look, I get it. Leone has more blown saves than actual saves in his career, but he's never been clearly given the role. It's night and day when a guy knows his role and when he needs to be ready. With Luke Gregerson battling an oblique injury and new imports Bud Norris and Jason Motte struggling to stay in one piece or execute on the mound, the Cards need some order.

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The Cardinals could place Tyler Lyons in a seventh-inning role and try out Sam Tuivailala in the setup role to test out the younger man's control. Lyons-Tui-Leone could be a potent trio to end the game. As March stretches into its second lap, Leone could provide some shape to the attack.

He's quite a story. A hotshot upon entry, crash-landed in the desert, before awakening in Canada. Now, Leone calls St. Louis home and looks like a gift from the Blue Jays. He's arbitration eligible next winter, so he has to think about a big season.

He doesn't have closer experience and isn't a sure thing, but Dominic Leone's makeup sure spells closer to me.