For a pitcher selected in the 24th round from Southern University in 2013, Jose De Leon finds himself being handled like a high-pick bonus baby by the Los Angeles Dodgers of late.
De Leon had an ankle sprain in March that was considered minor, yet he went through extended spring training and didn’t make his Triple-A debut with Oklahoma City until May 4. He “felt something” in his right, pitching shoulder after a start, was placed on the disabled list on May 16 and wasn’t activated until June 7.
“He was just another guy in the organization who could pitch when he was drafted,” Oklahoma City pitching coach Matt Herges. “He made himself into ‘the guy.’ It made us say, ‘OK, we have something here. Let’s keep him healthy.’ So really, it’s just him getting the innings under his belt to where he can handle a major league work load.”
Stunningly, De Leon has become the No. 2 prospect in the Los Angeles organization. The top prospect — Julio Urias, the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball — is already with the Dodgers, having been called up May 27.
De Leon said his rise began during his second professional season, in 2015. He’d done well in his first year in the Rookie League and Class A. But the next year, in Advanced A with Rancho Cucamunga, he had a 1.67 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 37.2 innings in going 4-1. Promoted to the Double A Tulsa Drillers, he struck out 105 in 76.2 innings over 16 games with a 3.64 ERA.
“When I signed, I was real overweight,” he said. “So that second year, I had to drop 25, 30 pounds. I liked candy. I changed my diet, and I drank a lot of water and did a lot of cardio, and things just clicked.”
De Leon has a 92-93 mph fastball that can get up to 95. Herges said it is very deceptive, though.
“He has an exceptional spin rate on his fastball and an exceptional distance to home plate,” Herges said. “And those things are what the industry now thinks very highly of.
“When he releases the baseball, he’s closer to home plate than most people because of his stride and his mechanics. What that does is it makes a fastball play up. The (speed) gun says 90, but in all actuality, it’s 94.”
De Leon also has a tight slider that is considered a very good second pitch, and an excellent changeup. And he mixes his pitches well. His changeup is his out pitch.
“I hide the ball behind my back well, and the hitter doesn’t see it until it’s on him,” he said.
Herges said De Leon’s changeup is a rare weapon.
“His changeup is a double-plus,” Herges said. “A plus changeup is better than major league average. A double-plus changeup is one of the best in the game.
“He just gets a spin on it that makes the ball bottom out. It is a changeup that has depth. A changeup that looks exactly like a fastball is what makes it a swing-and-a-miss pitch. Not everyone has a changeup that ends at-bats. His does, and that’s pretty cool.”
DeLeon said he could always strike batters out, even in Little League, and that’s his mentality.
“Then I started watching baseball on television, and I saw Pedro Martinez,” he said. “That was the guy I wanted to be. The way I throw, the arm angle, everything is similar to him, his mentality. He was a strikeout pitcher.
“I just attack hitters. And if I get two strikes, I just get it in my mind that it’s over.”
De Leon was invited to spring training with the Dodgers but hurt the ankle a week before it started, he said. He continued to work on changing his body.
“I lifted heavy and worked out twice a week and pitched every five days,” he said. “The Dodgers had a date for me to start my season.”
His debut on May 4 came against the Zephyrs in Oklahoma City. He allowed two hits and struck out nine, shutting them out over five innings, but New Orleans won 2-0. He has pitched in four games in Triple A, striking out 24 in 15 innings, allowing six hits and walking five with a 2.40 ERA. He pitched four innings against Zephyrs on Saturday and allowed one run on two hits in four innings.
De Leon came to Southern from San Antonio High School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, because it was the only Division I scholarship he had. He had offers from Florida junior colleges and an enticing one to play in a professional league with an independent team that he said was below Class A ball. But his mother felt strongly he should go to college.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” said De Leon, who was first-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference as a sophomore and junior before being drafted. “I grew up as a man. I had to do my own laundry, everything. I played for coach (Roger) Cador, a living legend who took great care of his players, and I got an education.”
It seems he may have flown under the radar, as they say, not getting offers from more schools and now zooming to his current prospect status. He disagrees.
“I wasn’t even close to how I am now back then,” he said. “Everything just clicked my second year.”
The Dodgers are pitching-rich, but Herges predicts great things for De Leon.
“He can get people out at the big-league level right now,” Herges said. “Really, it’s just him getting the innings under his belt so he can handle a major league workload.
“He’s very talented, someone who is self-made. He has certain characteristics of his pitches that are hard to find. I predict that he will be a very good major league pitcher for a long time.”