When the Giants called up Dominic Leone last week and added the righty to their roster, it was only because one of his unwitting mentors was not available.
This bullpen sure could use Mariano Rivera.
The Connecticut native, who grew up a Red Sox fan and watched the Yankees legend routinely torment his favorite team with one signature pitch, picked up his cutter his last season at Clemson.
“I started looking it up on YouTube, and there are some good videos on there where I could really see how he held it, how he used it,” Leone said last week. “Kind of just took off from there.”
It’s worked during a well-traveled, eight-year career that has taken him from Seattle to Arizona to Toronto to St. Louis to Cleveland and finally San Francisco. He struggled last year with Cleveland, but entered Giants camp with a 4.09 ERA in 241 major league games, with more than a strikeout an inning, in building a solid major league career with that cutter, fastball and slider. It’s a repertoire that the Giants have helped him boost.
He stood out in spring training, but along with Zack Littell and Jimmie Sherfy (as well as the recently DFA’d Nick Tropeano), he was not added to the roster right away, the club wanting to give the first shots to players already on the 40-man. Camilo Doval and Gregory Santos were raw, and the bullpen has taken a step toward stability, if not dominance, this month.
Leone had a June 1 opt-out of his contract, and the Giants called him up that day after he racked up 16 strikeouts in nine Triple-A innings.
His start to 2021 has been encouraging, and he was the righty Gabe Kapler turned to after Sammy Long surrendered a leadoff double in the sixth inning Wednesday. Some small ball scored the run, but Leone has impressed early on, with a 3.18 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 5 2/3 innings, all with stuff that has been harnessed.
His fastball averaged 94.8 mph last year, the best of his career. This year he’s throwing the pitch more and a bit harder, averaging 95.1 mph, a full two ticks up from his 2016 season with Arizona.
He credited director of pitching Brian Bannister for helping the stuff improve, saying “easy mechanical” issues have been ironed out. His shoulders were flying open.
“Just closing my shoulders off a little bit, and that helps me to stay back. Drive through the ball a little more more,” the 29-year-old said. “The only other thing after that was just staying behind the baseball. Throwing a cutter, you naturally can start to cut everything. So for me it was just reminding myself to stay behind the baseball, drive through it, and that’s given me the tick in velocity.”
Leone is not the first pitcher to call out Bannister, whom Farhan Zaidi plucked from the Red Sox before the 2020 season. He works behind the scenes as a bigger-picture mind with pitchers up and down the system.
“He really just knows how to put things in layman’s terms for guys,” Leone said. “In the game of numbers and analytics and everything now, he’s able to take those and break it down into something physical for you as a pitcher to identify the change, and that was really nice for me.”
With Matt Wisler designated for assignment and Doval and Santos in Triple-A, there will be more opportunities for Leone and Sherfy to prove not just that they belong, but that the Giants don’t need to add at the trade deadline.
There will be temptations for a team with the best record in baseball but without shutdown, late-game options.
“I remember my conversations with [Leone] in the offseason — he really wanted the opportunity to prove himself, that he could be a really important piece in this bullpen,” Kapler said before Wednesday’s game. “So far, he’s shown us exactly that. He’s capable of it.”