Welcome back to another rendition of RotoFanatic’s Under The Microscope series, as this time around Daniel Ponce de Leon will be the player under closer examination.
You may have heard his story, you may have not, but this is how the legend goes. Daniel Ponce de Leon is a fighter. No, I am not referring to the famous boxer who happens to share a name with the Cardinals’ right-handed pitcher, but am rather alluding to the resilience and drive that the twenty-eight year old has embodied over the past two seasons of his career in the wake of experiencing a very traumatic event on the field on May 9, 2017. While on the mound versus the Iowa Cubs, Ponce de Leon experienced a serious event when he was struck directly in the right-temple by a hard line drive hit up the middle by Victor Caratini.
This unfortunate event resulted in a fractured skull and internal bleeding from his brain, forcing the medical staff to rush him the hospital to have emergency surgery performed on his head. After a few months of rehabilitation, Ponce made a full recovery but would not return to Major League Baseball until February of 2018. His path to the major leagues was initially delayed and surprisingly convoluted, but he is now officially here to stay. The pedigree hasn’t been overwhelming but it has existed across all levels. It is unimaginable how difficult it must be to suffer a traumatic head injury on the mound, and even more so to get right back up and improve in the following two seasons. Not even a line drive to the head could knock him out of the game of baseball, which is why I decided to attribute him the nickname of – The Facade.
Believe it or not, Ponce de Leon had been drafted four times as an amateur player (2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014) and did not make his MLB debut until July 23, 2018. It truly was an unforgettable debut, as he spun a “No-Hit Bid” of seven shut-out innings against the Reds while accumulating three strikeouts and three walks in his first cup of coffee at the Major League level. This outing embodies who Ponce de Leon has been as a pitcher over the past two seasons. He may not become a pitcher with astronomical strikeout potential but will rather thrive as a craftsman who understands how to get different hitters out by any means necessary.
He has displayed positive linear growth across each level of professional baseball that he has pitched at, which by default begun to spark some intrigue within the community ever since witnessing his no-hit debut back in July of 2018. Near league-average surface stats have helped keep Ponce de Leon as a hidden gem buried beneath the surface, but when you look deeper there is much more to take away. Daniel Ponce de Leon has a current NFBC ADP of 410, in contrast to his ADP of 545 between February and March of this year. Get your shares now while you can still grab him at a good price.
In 2019 Ponce posted a 3.70 ERA, but it is intriguing that he was able to simultaneously post a 2.81 dERA and a 2.61 wiERA. Developed by Alex Chamberlain, dERA or “deserved ERA”, can be defined as a wOBAcon-based metric that is more descriptive of an ERA estimator than FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Chamberlain then replaced wOBAcon with xwOBAcon to create wiERA or “what if ERA”, as this ERA estimator accounts for the weak contact that Ponce was able to induce despite results of the batted ball event. Positive growth lies on the horizon for Ponce de Leon.
Let us begin by taking a glimpse at his suite of Statcast Sliders to identify where Ponce ranked among pitchers across the league last season in various performance categories. The first thing to account for within this graphic is the fact that Ponce’s Statcast page is painted red, which represents that the underlying skill set for him continually improve upon pitching performance appears to be alive and well beneath the surface.
Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez have only so much time left as viable rotation assets for the Cardinals, so a spot in that rotation may inevitably await Ponce de Leon if can continue to progress each season. Kwang-Hyun Kim and Genesis Cabrera may be the only two Cardinal pitchers who Ponce de Leon would have to compete with in 2020 or 2021 for any type of open rotation spot, and it looks like both of them are likely destined for the bullpen.
An interesting observation from this figure is the clear discrepancy between his Average Exit Velocity (51st percentile) and Hard Hit% (96th percentile). One would initially think that a pitcher who possesses a heightened Average Exit Velocity would simultaneously yield a higher-than-average Hard Hit%, but this is clearly not the case for Ponce de Leon. This translates to a pitcher who has the capability to yield average quality of contact while remaining in the top 4 percent of the league for allowing contact events hit equal to or harder than ninety-five miles per hour.
Since making his debut in July of 2018, Ponce has made measurable linear progress over his first two seasons of pitching in the MLB. The Facade has been quietly impressive to say the least, while his limited sample size of innings pitched across two seasons has allowed for him to fly under the radar while yielding above league-average performance indices. Given the limited sample size, Ponce’s underlying performance metrics from 2018-2019 show more promise for positive growth in 2020 than his resulting surface stats would suggest.
Given the relatively small sample size of innings pitched (48 2/3) in 2019, Ponce yielded reverse Platoon Splits that sparked a bit of intrigue right out the gate. Keeping in mind that he threw ten more innings against right-handed batters than he did against left-handed batters, Ponce de Leon yielded a 4.30 ERA versus right-handed batters and a 2.79 ERA versus left-handed batters. Even though he walked less batters and had a lower WHIP against right-handed hitters, all six home runs that Ponce de Leon gave up in 2019 were to hitters on this particular side of the platoon. You are likely asking, why?
The answer is fairly straight forward, as it appears that he had been attacking right-handed batters too aggressively over the heart of the plate. The average location of his pitches thrown to left-handed batters is closer to the upper shadow zone in contrast to the average location of pitches thrown versus right-handed batters. This is a major problem that can be solved by elevating the fastball just a bit higher to right-handed batters. Most would think that this small of a detail doesn’t mean very much when performing an analysis, but this could mean life or death for a pitcher who lives and dies with his fastball high in the zone.
Home / Away
Interestingly enough, Ponce posted substantially better stats on the road than he did within Busch Stadium, which is somewhat surprising due to the fact that Busch Stadium is a relatively pitcher-friendly ballpark. Simply enough, these results were a product of allowing more hits and home runs when pitching at home, as his strikeouts, walks, and BABIP were fairly similar between home and away appearances. Ponce de Leon allowed more runners to reach base when pitching on the road, but ultimately gave up higher quality of contact when pitching at home.
This resulted in giving up more home runs within Busch Stadium and ultimately led to an inflated ERA of 4.55. Ponce de Leon’s FIP was 4.70 at home and 4.02 on the road, signifying that he did not achieve peak performance when pitching in Busch Stadium for whatever reason. Having accrued more walks and strikeouts when on the road, this further suggests that the range in his home and away splits indicates a true lapse in individual peak performance primarily while in St. Louis – as this disparity in FIP tells the true story here.
A Tale of Two Halves
Analyzing both a player’s “Monthly” and “Through Count” splits in tandem can assist in painting a fairly accurate picture as to why certain successes or failures were reached at various points of a season. The moral of the story with Ponce de Leon is that whenever he has fallen behind in the count to hitters has been when he has given up the vast majority of his fly balls, and by default more home runs as a result. It is worth mentioning that Ponce performed exceptionally well prior to the All Star break in 2019 (2.16 ERA), but he then endured a second half skid (5.32 ERA) that was only successful in clouding the view of fantasy managers from how great of a first half that he actually had.
He was in the bottom 7 percent of the league in BB%, which in turn inflated almost all of his ERA indicators as a direct result (as seen below). There is stake to be put into the fact that Ponce is in the 96th percentile for Hard Hit%, as this is reflected in his 3.67 xERA which accounts for type and quality of contact allowed (Exit Velocity and Launch Angle).
As Ponce de Leon continued to get ahead in the count more often and displayed the ability to stay ahead with two strikes on the batter, he proved to yield ground ball rates north of 50 percent and HR/oFB rates of approximately 14 percent. It is important to understand that the majority of damage that has been done against Ponce de Leon has occurred when he has fallen behind in the count. This forces a pitcher to try and recover with four-seam fastballs that frequently end up over the heart of the plate (see heat maps below).
Whether you have two or three balls on the hitter, the goal is to never give in by piping a fastball when the batter knows it is coming. Deception and the ability to surprise a hitter in any count is what can turn an MLB pitcher from good to great. This is a growing pain that he will likely be able to correct for the 2020 season and beyond.
Another facet of Ponce’s performance that he improved upon was increasing the amount of swings and misses generated by pitches thrown out of the zone. His plate discipline profile improvements can be seen in the table below, as he was able to increase his O-Swing% to 32.8 percent and his O-SwingMiss% to 35.5%. He experienced a natural decline in Z-SwingMiss% in congruence with a decrease in overall Zone% to a more manageable mark of 39.4 percent. It will be interesting to observe whether Ponce de Leon increases his Z-SwingMiss% or not in 2020, as this could become a very positive sign that he should limit hitter’s xBA even better next time around. Having dropped his Zone% to near league-average should allow Ponce de Leon to reach his full potential with a more refined arsenal.
Strong Tunneling Ability
Tunneling is an incredibly important skill to consider when evaluating whether the successes that a pitcher has been experiencing is stochastic and fluky in nature or if they can become a sustainable reality for 2020 and beyond. Deception is the name of the game. In a previous deep dive article written for SPStreamer.com, it was highlighted how Ryan Yarbrough’s current inability to tunnel his pitches raises concerns for how long he’ll remain a viable fantasy or rotation asset. Fortunately for Daniel Ponce de Leon, he is a better tunneler than Yarbrough and has displayed an elite ability to tunnel his four-seam fastball and curveball.
Improvements need to be made in order to hone in his cutter so all three pitches appear to be released from the exact same location. This trend does not hold true for his below-average changeup, as this could be a potential mechanical breakthrough if conquered before the start of the 2020 season. This can be seen in the Pitch Tracker data below, which shows the precision and consistency in the X-Y release points for his fastball and curveball. This data also reveals the outlying green and brown dots which signifies that his release points for these pitches are less consistent than for his fastball and curveball.
If a pitcher is having above league-average success and is proving to mix and tunnel his pitches like Ponce de Leon is, then the longer it will take for hitters to adjust and make quality contact. As can be seen in the Release Point figure below, Ponce displays an adequate level of repeatability in his delivery with all pitches despite the changeup (green outliers on plot). Having now peered into this particular window of his mechanical make-up, we can dig into each pitch within his arsenal with a greater understanding of the varying levels of success possessed by each pitch.
Arsenal: Pitch by Pitch
For reference, the table below shows each pitch type that Ponce de Leon has thrown over the past two seasons and how his usage of those pitches has changed in just one year. To summarize, he started to rely even more heavily on his four-seam fastball and curveball in 2019. The uptick in usage of his two best pitches demonstrates that he has a clear understanding of what has worked for him as time has pressed on. He has shown that he has the ability to have multiple pitches work for him on any given night.
Ponce de Leon’s fastball usage is almost equally distributed across all counts, as it serves as his go to pitch that has garnered 77 percent of all of his strikeouts in 2019 (forty strikeouts). His four-seam fastball isn’t as straight as one may think, as it possesses almost twelve-inches of horizontal break (68 percent above-average) and fifteen-inches of vertical drop (4 percent above-average). This pitch has a 5.5 percent barrel rate, which is well below league average. The main issue comes down to Ponce de Leon throwing his fastball 70.7 percent of the time while also throwing it inside of the zone 48 percent of the time. This can be visualized in the Pitcher Plinko chart below courtesy of BaseballSavant.com. If he can drop that Zone% closer to 45 percent and fantasy owners will begin to reap the benefits. Predictable fastball over-usage can be a recipe for disaster, but this is Ponce’s bread and butter for striking batters out.
After watching film, one thing that became apparent about Ponce de Leon’s strategy on the mound was his motive to exterminate hitters clearly was to beat them up in the zone with his sneaky good fastball. One comparison to Ponce in terms of the methodology used to attack hitters is Jake Odorizzi. Even though he is very much established within the MLB, Odorizzi happens to get away with throwing his fastball in the zone almost 60 percent of the time while bolstering nearly a 15 percent SwStr%. This usage pattern could also become a reality for Ponce de Leon, who currently possesses near an 11 percent SwStr% on his fastball. The key to improving this pitch is to stop catching the heart of the plate and to shift those hot spots north toward the upper border of the strike zone (see contoured heat map below).
Eleven strikeout videos into this research, and all eleven of those strikeouts were recorded with a ninety-five mile per hour fastball up in the shadow and chase zones (see videos below). Another facet that Ponce de Leon improved upon from 2018 to 2019 was increasing the spin rates on all four pitches that he throws. His four-seam fastball spin jumped from 2217 RPM to 2335 RPM. With this leap he also cemented himself as the twenty-third best ranked pitcher for Active Spin on a four-seam fastball, yielding a 94.2% rate. The patterning behind his success with this pitch became very apparent. He likes to get ahead with the cutter and curveball and then put em’ away with the high heat.
Video of Ponce de Leon striking out Michael Conforto with a high fastball. Courtesy of BaseballSavant.com.
Video of Ponce de Leon striking out Anthony Rendon with a high fastball. Courtesy of BaseballSavant.com.
Look for Ponce to develop even more control over his fastball in the upcoming season, as he will certainly need a command+ higher than eighty-five to remain a viable pitching option for more than just a few innings. The graphic below portrays the average locations that Ponce de Leon pitches to the most. This is one of the more encouraging visualizations that clearly shows his motive to work high in the shadow zone with the fastball. He has proven this to become a successful method of pitching for Ponce de Leon unless the fastball catches too much of the zone. The heart of the zone still not being color coded as blue is really the only concern here, as his fastball catches too much of the plate more often than it needs to.
Just like Ponce de Leon’s curveball and changeup, his cutter managed to bolster a 0 percent barrel% even having been thrown 13 percent of the time. This is largely due to his stronger ability to locate this pitch within the shadow zone, as this can be observed in the contour heat map below.
His cutter has average vertical drop (1 percent above-average) and has below-average horizontal break (-190% below-average), as this is certainly a pitch that he will need to further develop this season to do a better job at deceiving hitters. Ponce currently ranks seventy-eighth among pitchers for Active Spin on the cutter, which somewhat confirms why he might not be getting the most movement out of this pitch. The main issue with his cutter is that it isn’t moving enough to fool hitters. In 2019 his cutter experienced a decline in ability to generate in-zone swings and misses, dropping from 21.2 percent to a measly 7.9 percent.
If he is not able to achieve improvements with horizontal break on this pitch then it will be a struggle to make it better than it currently is. What his cutter does have going for it is the 73.7 percent GB% that it yields, which can likely be attributed to the advanced ability to command this pitch in on the hands of right-handed batters. Hitters put this pitch into play 24 percent of the time, profiling the cutter as his “to contact” out pitch in contrast to the four-seam fastball being his “put away” strikeout pitch.
This is undoubtedly the pitch that Ponce de Leon needs to throw more often as both a putaway pitch (38.5 percent K%) as well as a pitch to generate weak contact low in the zone (.104 xBA). Ponce’s curveball has the potential to become an even more effective strikeout pitch than his fastball if he can continue to throw more often to assist in changing the eye level and timing of hitters. His four-seam fastball and curveball are tunneled beautifully, yet it seems that he has not fully embraced the idea of pairing the two best pitches in his arsenal. This arsenal shift would take some pressure off of his cutter. As can be observed below, Ponce did a fairly good job of keeping his curveball away from the heart of the plate as he peppered the lower boundary of the strike zone.
Ponce was able to gain 107 RPM of spin on his curveball (2728 RPM), while 80.2 percent of that is active spin which ranks eighty-third among qualified pitchers. This puts Ponce de Leon’s curveball just behind Lucas Giolito and Clayton Kershaw’s Active Spin rates. If he can add another 5 percent of Active Spin to this pitch then it will rank among the likes of Jack Flaherty, Tyler Glasnow, and Adrian Houser. Ponce’s curveball yielded a 50 percent GB% and a 30 percent K-BB%, showing just how good of a pitch this can become if thrown more often with two strikes on the batter.
While watching one of Ponce’s starts, it was easy to see that his changeup had stellar horizontal break when thrown low enough in the zone or down and outside of the zone. This observation is supported by the 17.9 inches of horizontal break that his changeup possesses (44 percent above-average), given only a sixty-three pitch sample. Another positive about his changeup is that it has 10.1 miles per hour of velocity separation from his fastball, indicating that the ability to strategically use this pitch and get great results in return. Deceptive velocity combined with amazing horizontal break provides evidence that this pitch is actually be worth spending time on developing. It can be observed in the contour heat map below that he has located the changeup fairly well around the edges of the strike zone, but is still missing high entirely too often for this pitch type.
Ponce de Leon’s changeup yielded a .216 xBA, .342 xwOBA, .182 xwOBAcon, 34.8 percent Whiff%, and 66.7 percent GB%. He was also able to add 174 RPM of spin on this pitch from 2018 to 2019, which is tangible evidence that should make even further strides forward as a pitcher in 2020. Stabilized results for the changeup should become more apparent when there have been more than seven batted ball events recorded for this pitch. If Ponce de Leon is able to strategically use and command his changeup in most counts then he will have a rounded out arsenal with three potential plus pitches.
Thank you for reading!
*All statistics, figures, and graphical representations were extracted from BaseballSavant.com, Fangraphs.com, BaseballReference.com, and Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Leaderboard on Tableau.