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Opinion | Why MLB hitters should fear Daniel Ponce de Leon's four-seam fastball

He took a line drive off the head in 2017 but was pitching for the Cardinals 14 months later. Here's why you should keep an eye on Ponce and his dominant fastball

Wherever Daniel Ponce de Leon has pitched professionally, he's done pretty well.

Now, that's more uncommon for a starting pitcher than you may think, but for Ponce de Leon, it fits snugly into his baseball story.

There's also the juicy fact that he doesn't rely on a wide variety of pitches to get the job done. In his short yet reliable MLB career, Ponce de Leon has thrown his four seam fastball 67% of the time, according to Fangraphs.

But before we dive into pitch usage and velocities, let's do a quick Ponce professional history, right up until he met a baseball face to face. When it comes to this particular pitcher, his backstory is forever part of who he is.


At the age of 23, he put together an earned run average of 1.91 at Palm Beach, High A ball, in six starts. He climbed up to Peoria, where he posted a 3.17 ERA in 13 starts that same year.

In 2016, he accumulated the most innings in a single season with 151, posting a 4.23 ERA. This was at AA Springfield, a place known for its mighty bats.


In 2017, Ponce de Leon made it to Memphis, but was greeted rudely by the worst possible instance a pitcher can imagine. On May 27 of that year, he was hit in the head by a line drive. The ball hit him the head, he fell down, but didn't stay there for long. However, after a trip to the hospital and a powerful headache, Ponce de Leon realized the severity of what had occurred on the mound.

What if I told you the pitch that ended up colliding with his head was a two-seam fastball?

Now, here's where the redemption story moves into the incredible area of the baseball park. The next professional pitch Ponce de Leon would throw in a season wouldn't come against minor leaguers; it would happen in Cincinnati against the Reds for the St. Louis Cardinals.


Nearly 14 months after getting struck by that line drive and nearly losing his career, Ponce de Leon threw seven scoreless innings against the Reds in one of the toughest ballparks to pitch in, Great American Ballpark. His efforts would fall by the wayside, as the Reds would win 2-1 on a blown Bud Norris save, but the reality had settled in. Ponce de Leon was all the way back.

Now, how does he do it? In 123 professional starts spread out over parts of seven seasons, Ponce de Leon has posted a 2.99 ERA. He does primarily with a four-seam fastball that has teeth and movement. You could call him a poor man's Lance Lynn, even if the latter throws his fastball 10% more of the time than Ponce de Leon.


But the current Cardinal gets a lot of swings and misses on that four-seam heater. Running in right around 95 miles-per-hour, it collected a whiff percentage of 14% in July, where he threw the most innings with the Cardinals at 20.1, split between starting and relief. In 2018, between July and August, Ponce de Leon's whiff percentage according to Brooks Baseball, was right around 19%. Now, that's a lot more than your average righthanded pitcher.

Ponce de Leon's four seam velocity isn't overwhelming compared to say, Carlos Martinez or Jordan Hicks. 95 mph is fresh cheddar without the expressway, but you can thank Ponce de Leon's slight arm slant on his delivery for the deception. He lowers his arm towards the side upon delivery just slightly after a seemingly simplistic leg-kick windup, which can fool a hitter. It helps that his supporting cast, while used far less, can be competent when called upon.

Brooks Baseball calls his cutter, aka two-seam fastball, a "real worm killer," due to its ability to generate groundballs and the way it carries organic sinking action. While his curveball has "exceptional bite," the changeup produces too many fly balls for a pitch not meant to include long flies.


Opposing batters haven't collected a slugging percentage over .409 against Ponce de Leon's fastball. Lefthanded hitters should bring a voodoo necklace to home plate, because they slugged just .210 off him in his brief yet potent Major League career. If you look at the zone chart on Brooks Baseball, you'll find that low and away against lefties is Ponce de Leon's sweet spot, a place they can do no harm to his pitches. It's a soft contact party down there.

Now, all of these stats come from a small sample size because let's be honest, the man hasn't received a real shot yet on the Cardinals. He's made starts before being moved to the bullpen, and been shuttled back to the minors more than most. Ponce de Leon has made an even dozen starts and relief appearances in the Majors, and is running out of time. He turned 28 in January, which shows a heavily decreased road to the big 3-0, which has been known to be the top of the cliff before the fall for many players in this rich yet ruthless game.


But I wouldn't bet against him. Ponce de Leon has simply been through too much to place chips anywhere else yet right in front of him. He was drafted four different times, ranging from the 38th round to the ninth round. He attended four colleges and spent many years in the minors, which includes less than stellar hotels and plenty of time to hit the quit button. He's been down and close to out, but nothing has stopped him yet. Ponce de Leon could have called it after finding that line drive on a bad cutter, but there he was last season, fooling the best of the best.

He's armed with a very good fastball, which always gives a pitcher a chance in the big leagues. Daniel Ponce de Leon should make the decision very hard for Mike Shildt and Mike Maddux when the 2020 season gets underway. Whether it's in the first inning, the fifth, or the ninth, the Cardinals need to put him to use. He's pitched well at every level, overcome more than most, and has a quality arm.

He brings the heat, so turn him loose.

Much respect to Ben Cerutti with Birds on the Black for inspiring this piece. Check out his, and many other fine writers, at BOTB.

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