Lost amidst the hustle and bustle of last summer was the second half of Erick Leal at South Bend. The 6’3” right handed pitcher began to come into his own. In addition to throwing a nine inning no hitter, which South Bend lost in extra innings, Leal put up a 2.31 ERA in his last six starts. He struck out 30 in those 35.0 innings. It also looked Leal began to fill out a bit from his previous 180 pound frame. For the second half, his 2.82 ERA was a far cry from a 7+ ERA he put up in May. I expect to see Leal continue to improve in 2016, mainly working off his fastball command. In fact, Leal, who turns 21 tomorrow, could be one of the breakout pitchers of the summer.
Leal came to the Cubs in the Tony Campana trade with Arizona in February of 2013. The young Venezuelan began his professional career in the Dominican Summer League in 2012. At the time of the trade, Baseball America said this of his acquisition:
When Leal signed, he stood out for his size, delivery, ability to throw strikes and spin a breaking ball. He progressed quickly and in some ways became a different pitcher than scouts had expected. He threw from almost straight over the top when he signed, but he’s since dropped down to a lower slot and gotten more life on his fastball, which was 85-88 mph when he signed but now sits around 88-89. Leal’s best pitch is his mid-to-high 70s breaking ball, an advanced pitch for his age with a chance to be plus. He didn’t have a changeup when he signed, but he’s developed feel for that pitch as well, giving him the potential for three average or better pitches if his velocity continues to climb. He pitches inside, moves the ball around the zone and throws plenty of strikes, and he walked just 1.4 batters per nine innings last year. He did start to gain weight a little too quickly at one point, so he will have to stay on top of his conditioning.
Last year, Leal began to break the 90 mph plane and touched 91/92 at times. He continues to get stronger and his breaking ball remained a plus pitch for him while his change is still a work in progress.
As a Cub, Leal had a good season in Rookie Ball in 2013, while he did struggle at Boise some. In fact, he gave up 10 earned runs in his first 10 innings in short season A ball. Leal rebounded and started 10 more games, eventually lowering his ERA from 9 down to under 4. By the end of the 2014 season at Boise, Leal was routinely going 5 to 6 innings every start, which is good for short season A ball.
The thing I noticed most him about him at South Bend was that his command greatly improved on his fastball from May to August. In May, everything was up. He was getting hit hard when he left his fastball up and out over the plate. He was given up 5-7 runs a night in those 5-6 innings. Slowly, he began to change. In June, his fastball started to look better. Come July, you could see the changes in Leal. Then, it was not uncommon to see him go 7 or 8 innings and only give up 2-3 runs.
Things continued well for him in August. He had one start where he only made it through four innings and gave up 6 runs, but that was after his no hitter. Otherwise, he was popping out 5-6-7 innings a night through the end of the season.
The main difference for Leal was that he was getting a lot of strikeouts with his curve and a lot of soft grounders to second off of fastballs down and away. Under pitching coach Brian Lawrence, Leal bloomed. Lawrence said the following about Leal’s growth:
“It’s nothing specific we did. He’s finding himself out there. He’s not missing over the plate as much; before, he threw strikes that were too good of strikes when he didn’t have to. Now he’s keeping the ball down, working the corners. He’s growing and learning.”
In 2016, Leal will be pitching in a pitcher’s park in a pitcher’s league for Myrtle Beach. He is going to need that third pitch at high A. At short season and low A, one can get away with being a two pitch starter, at high A and AA, one cannot.
If Leal can continue to develop that changeup, gain some more strength, and continue to command his fastball, Leal could be a breakout prospect this summer. Whether or not he can be a starter long term, is up in the air. I can see him as a bullpen piece for sure with his fastball and curve combo.