The WSU baseball team sits at just 16-13 roughly halfway through the season, making a return to the postseason look a little bit dicey at the moment.
One of the big reasons the team has struggled to win consistently has been the performance of the pitching staff, which has been inconsistent at best. It's a young group; the rotation features a true sophomore and two true freshman, while two freshmen and a sophomore make up half of the relievers who have made at least 10 appearances. Only one junior or senior -- closer Anthony Drobnick, a junior -- is regularly used in high leverage situations.
Sophomore J.D. Leckenby, the team's Friday night starter, is the leader of that young, talented and inconsistent pack. If you were around the site last season, you know that I made no secret of my infatuation with Leckenby. I pony up the $9.95 a month to watch the team on WSUCougars.com, and I loved what I saw out of him last year.
Here's what I wrote about him at the end of last season:
He throws a hard sinker in the low 90s that induces an insane number of ground balls. His 2.28 ERA out of the bullpen was partly driven by a ridiculously low .181 opponents' BABIP, but still -- at least some of that can be explained by the weak contact he often induces.
Pitchers who can induce ground balls are perhaps the most undervalued commodity to the casual fan. While they're not nearly as sexy as guys like Adam Conley who can reach back and blow a ball by a batter, they operate with cold efficiency. After all, every ball that's on the ground is a ball that can't leave the yard. As the Mariners continue to show, there's really only so much damage a team can do with a series of seeing-eye singles.
If you didn't get to see him last year, here's what the majority of his outings looked like (major league hat tip to Mark, who's responsible for putting together all of the video you're about to see):
My final assessment last year:
If he learns how to miss some bats (just five strikeouts in 27.1 innings) and walks a few less hitters, he'll be a bonafide ace.
Well, he has done both of those things, racking up more strikeouts (now 5.8 per nine innings) and limiting his walks (2.5 per nine innings, down from 4.7). Yet, while he's had moments of brilliance, and certainly hasn't been the team's biggest problem, his overall stat line doesn't exactly scream "ace." He's experiencing far less success than he did a year ago.
Why? With Mark's help, I think I've discovered at least part of the problem.
Leckenby's batting average on balls in play has soared all the way to .362, meaning batted balls that don't leave the yard are resulting in hits at exactly twice the rate of a season ago. Granted, his BABIP mark last year was unsustainably low, but that's still an enormous jump.
One might be tempted to simply chalk that up to regression, and that's almost certainly part of what we're seeing. However, having watched Leckenby on a number of occasions this year, I can tell you he's simply not inducing the same kind of weak contact he was a year ago. (Never mind the fact that you'd expect regression to not be so extreme given that the Cougar defense is much better this year.)
If it's not simply regression, what is it? Check this out. Here's a video of Leckenby pitching last year. Pay attention to his throwing mechanics:
Leckenby flashes the kind of form you typically see from sinker ball pitchers: straight ahead, downhill motion with a 3/4 slot.
Now, check out 2012. See if you can spot the differences.
Having a tough time spotting them? Here are the two motions, side by side -- yes, Mark is the best:
As you can see, his plant foot lands much more to his right, causing him to almost have to throw against his body. With the downhill plane gone, he seems to be compensating by slinging the ball side arm -- the slot has dropped dramatically.
To the naked it eye, it appears Leckenby's mechanics have become a mess.
Perhaps this is all by design. I obviously don't know the answer to that. And perhaps this isn't the reason the ball has been elevated to a greater degree, resulting in harder contact and fewer ground balls. I'm only speculating. But in trying to figure out why his results aren't lining up with those of a year ago, this seems like as good a theory as any.