The search for Dominic Leone: How the Cards' most intriguing rel -

The search for Dominic Leone: How the Cards' most intriguing reliever rebuilt himself

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JUPITER, Fl. ( -- For a long time, Dominic Leone was lost.

After shining bright in his rookie season in Seattle, the righty reliever started to recognize his pitches less and less. Finding himself would take two years, and force him to travel from the Northwest to the Southwest and up to Canada.

Now in his first season with St. Louis, the 26-year-old is back to being the pitcher he knew himself to be.

“It was a tough process to go through. Somewhere I had lost my mechanics and how I went about pitching effectively,” he said Friday in Jupiter. “Really, I just identified it when my results were pretty dismal. [I said] ‘I need to get back.’ I know I’m not right, my velocity is down, I don’t feel very good.’ I really just decided to take a complete overhaul.”

Leone knew something was broken, but that’s all he knew.

A pitcher’s delivery is a confluence of body mechanics; a symphony of movement that must remain constantly in tune. If one musician in the orchestra is out of rhythm, if one instrument is flat, the sound is off. You can hear it, but finding the problem takes time.

“There’s so many things that can change throughout a season. Whether it’s things like moving from level to level or little things like being on the grind of a road trip. All of those things can factor in because it can throw you off in the smallest way and you start thinking it’s this problem, but really, it’s that,” he said.

Self-diagnosis got Leone nowhere. He struggled in 2015, pitching in just 13 MLB games for two different teams and an ERA above 8.0. The next season he split time between the majors and Triple-A, marginally improving his ERA but still nowhere close to feeling like himself.

So he sought help. Anyone who knew him when he felt right, anyone who could suggest something- anything- to get him back to himself got a call.

“I was reaching out to anybody and everybody that had watched me pitch. Past pitching coaches, current teammates, everybody,” he said. “ The amount of people I tried to use for their knowledge, you can’t even put a number to it.”

He asked current teammates to eye his mechanics in everything from his time on the mound to when he played catch. He asked his agent to weigh in. He looked back to old teachers.

“I had a couple former coaches that I said, ‘Hey, if you got a sec, I’ll shoot you over some video of when I was with you. See if you can pick out any differences,’” Leone recalled.

Eventually, the pieces started to fall into place.

Brick by brick, outing by outing, Leone rebuilt the pitcher he recognized. In 2017, he returned to the major league mound.

In 70.1 innings, Leone held hitters to a .202 average and a skeletal .360 slugging percentage. He inherited the fourth-most runners in baseball, 54, and stranded 42 of them (a mark which put him among the very best in the American League).

He was back.

It wasn’t just improved results. His pitches were demonstrably better. Baseball Prospectus Toronto took an in-depth look at Leone’s 2017, primarily the spin rates on his pitches in his rebound season.

They found all of Leone’s best pitches saw a major uptick in RPMs, which drastically improved their movement. As a result, his cutter and slider started producing way more swings and misses. Last season he averaged 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, the best of his career.

But Leone doesn’t care about the granular data. He's learned to simplify the questions if he wants answers.

“For me, I know when it’s coming out of my hand good and when it’s not. Having an actual number that represents that, I don’t pay much attention to it. I’ve gotten outs when my spin rates are low and I’ve gotten outs when my spin rates are high,” he said. “You have to keep the process as simple as possible. The more factors you bring into it, the harder it is to identify what it is that needs to be changed and improved.”

Coming off a career year, Leone has a chance at a starring role in the Cardinal bullpen. St. Louis’ relief corps is still fluid, with crucial roles open for whoever shines in camp. Leone was used in every inning at least once for the Blue Jays last season, and figures to have a shot at any relief role he wants. But after the long road back, he doesn’t much care what role he has.

“I just want to be one of the seven or one of the eight or however many [relievers] the team carries,” he said. “It was a two year process to really get back to what I was doing right, where I felt really good. Last year I found my good routine. I have a blueprint. I’m not going to say I’m going to be perfect every time, nobody is, but I at least know my process- preparing for games, postgame recovery, stuff like that- is all in line. It’s going to allow me to be primed and ready every time I take the mound.”

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