The road to being viewed as a consistent contributor in the majors has not been an easy one for the 28-year-old Daniel Ponce de Leon.
Despite receiving cups of “Joe” (see what I did there?) in the big leagues in each of the last two seasons (and producing in positive way — 1.2 fWAR over 81.2 IP), Ponce de Leon paid his own way to five days of training at Driveline Baseball in Kent, Washington, this off-season. With the technical and mechanical guidance of Bill Hezel (who has since been hired as a pitching consultant for the Philadelphia Phillies) and staff, Ponce de Leon left Driveline better informed of who he is as a pitcher.
According to this St. Louis Post Dispatch article by Derrick Goold (and personal communication with Ponce de Leon himself), the cutter can serve as the X-factor for his path forward as a regular Major League contributor. The curveball (more on this later) and the four-seam fastball are already legitimate MLB weapons, but a third pitch is a virtual necessity for the longevity of most starting pitchers.
And while Ponce de Leone admits he is “still trying to hone” the cutter, with the guidance of the minds and enormously helpful data exhaustively tracked at Driveline (and soon enough in the supposed Cardinals pitching lab?), he has a specific axis in mind — 11:30 PM on an analog clock or spinning through 170 degrees. This axis spins purposefully off his vertically-focused four-seam fastball, that spins along a 215-degree axis.
Admittedly, spin axis can be a difficult concept to grasp fully. Fortunately, with cutters, it is pretty easy because the best cutters are slight variations off the fastball. A fastball that possesses pure backspin carries a 180-degree axis. Tilt the axis above 180 degrees, and you’ll produce arm-side movement (as is the case with Ponce de Leon’s 215-degree four-seamer and 237-degree changeup). Drop the axis below 180 degrees, and you produce glove-side movement (again, from a righty’s perspective).
Let’s take a look at where the cutter can fit into Ponce de Leon’s repertoire, courtesy of the legendary @cardinalsgifs:
Full disclosure, the cutter seen above — from July 17, 2019, versus Jacob Stallings of the Pittsburgh Pirates — was not yet thrown on the desired 170-degree axis. Why? because Ponce de Leon did not throw the cutter on its (now) desired axis in all of 2019. In fact, its average spin axis in 2019 was 196 degrees.
Remember, anything greater than 180 degrees produces arm-side movement (from a righty’s perspective). Well, with a right-handed cutter, the most common approach is to produce sharp, glove-side movement. Well, for the entirety of 2019, Ponce de Leon was essentially throwing back-up cutters (but still appeared to be slightly glove-breaking when compared to the movement of his four-seamer) — which absolutely have a place in a repertoire — as represented by the 2019 slider of Giovanny Gallegos. Gallegos clearly had success throwing back-up sliders, but he still possessed the ability to throw glove-breakers, too. Plus, results-wise, Ponce de Leon’s cutter wasn’t all that appealing from a batted ball standpoint, as it yielded an xwOBA of .324.
Yet, this devastating two-pitch sequence shows us that the potential is there for the pitch to become a legitimate weapon for Ponce de Leon. Stallings looked silly swinging at the cutter down, away, and out of the zone. He was late on the 93.6 mph four-seam fastball for strike two and geared up for another one on 0-2. Only, Ponce de Leon broke off a 180-degree, 91.3 mph cutter, against which Stallings stood no match, as made clear by his back knee completely collapsing on the swing.
If Ponce de Leon can arrive at a point where he is consistently throwing the cutter on a 170-degree axis, he will finally have a glove-breaking offering more visually similar to his fastball — at an ideal axis separation of 45 degrees. Sure, he already throws a tremendous glove-breaking curveball, one that possesses a top 25 percent spin rate, but the way he weaponizes this pitch (see below) is relatively easy to distinguish from his fastball.
Regarding the curveball, only one pitcher averaged a higher vertical location in 2019 than Ponce de Leon’s 2.65 feet (Michael Brosseau’s 2.87 feet). The next highest after Ponce de Leon? Rich Hill (2.48 feet), whose resurgence in the majors is based solely on the effectiveness of the curve.
With two outs in the ninth inning on September 9, 2019, Ponce de Leon absolutely froze Jose Osuna with this 0-2 elevated curveball:
As I detailed in July 2018, the elevated curveball is a Mike Maddux specialty. The fact that Ponce de Leon already throws this type of pitch, more than nearly every other pitcher in baseball, makes him an appealing fit for a staff run by Maddux. Of the 89 documented curves Ponce de Leon threw in 2019, only one was put in play — a weak ground out by Orlando Arcia on April 23, 2019.
Scattered throughout 2018 and 2019, we have seen Ponce de Leon’s MLB floor, it is now time to reach his ceiling. His revamped cutter, and subsequently a more complete, better tunneled and sequenced repertoire, will be a key factor in getting to this point. And even if he doesn’t break camp as the fifth starter in the rotation, I am confident Ponce de Leon will provide a positive impact for the 2020 St. Louis Cardinals.
As always, credit to @cardinalsgifs, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, Baseball-Savant, and BrooksBaseball for their respective contributions to this post.