The pitch — Chris Leroux’s first offering of 2012 spring training — probably resembled a beach ball to Toronto Blue Jays hitter Eric Thames.
With an appetizing 93-mile-per-hour heater headed down the middle of the plate, perhaps the left-handed hitting Thames would lay off the pitch in a spring training opener, the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander wondered.
Not a chance.
Starting on back-burner
If the Pittsburgh Pirates have Canadian Chris Leroux pitch out of the bullpen this season, the aspiring starter will be the last person complaining.
"I think if they use me as a long reliever to start the season it’s not a bad thing. I’m in the big leagues," said Leroux, who is in a job battle with Juan Cruz, Chris Resop and Daniel Moskos.
Leroux, 27, last started in 2006 when he was in the Florida Marlins’ system, taking the mound three times for Greensboro (N.C.) of the South Atlantic League and posting a 6.10 earned-run average.
Leroux didn’t get the itch again until last season. But when the Pirates summoned the righty from AAA Indianapolis in July he was kept in a long relief role until later in the season when he appeared in the seventh and eighth innings.
"If you’re in the bullpen," he said, "obviously your goal is to be the guy that [the team goes] to when it’s a tight ball game."
But deep down, Leroux would love to start. To prove to some in the organization and others he was capable, Leroux joined Pirates AAA skipper Dean Treanor in the Dominican in November, where Treanor managed the Toros del Este squad in the Dominican League.
In five starts, Leroux undoubtedly raised some eyebrows with a 1.14 ERA.
After losing a showdown with lefty-hander Garrett Olson for the final bullpen spot last spring, Leroux — who said he never had the guts to broach the subject of starting in a meeting with a general manager — had a talk with Pirates GM Neal Huntington about his desire to start again. At the time, Huntington told his pitcher it wasn’t in his best interests to start.
"This year, after going to the Dominican and proving some people wrong, he was a little more open-minded about it," Leroux said. "I don’t think he’s convinced yet that I can be a starter but you have to take those steps.
"You have to continue to do well and if I can continue to do well, then I’ll start prove more people wrong. I think my mentality is whatever they ask me to do, just do it and … perform every chance I get."
Leroux said all the hearsay about him starting began before Pittsburgh signed former New York Yankees right-hander A.J. Burnett in February. He added the Pirates might stretch him out at spring training in case of injury.
Burnett is expected to miss two to three months of action following surgery to repair a fractured right orbital bone after he was hit by a batted ball.
— Doug Harrison, CBC Sports
"He kind of went with it and there was a pretty steady wind out to left field and it cleared the wall," said the Montreal-born Leroux of Thames's blast. "As soon as he hit it I got so mad."
So mad, in fact, that Leroux responded by striking out the side, fanning Blue Jays regulars J.P. Arencibia, Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson.
A year ago, the six-foot-six, 225-pound Leroux said he would have tried to throw the ball through the catcher's glove after Thames went deep.
This time, a more mature Leroux refocused and channeled his aggression, quickly turning a disappointing moment into a positive result.
"I’ve learned over the last year or so that throwing harder isn’t necessarily the cure," Leroux said over the phone from the Pirates’ spring training site in Bradenton, Fla. "It’s just locating [pitches] better."
Enter Jim Benedict, the Pirates’ former pitching co-ordinator, who suggested to Leroux last spring that he adjust his arm slot to more of a three-quarters release and add a turn in his delivery a la Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay and Pirates teammate Erik Bedard.
The results were immediate and positive, with Leroux shaving nearly four runs off his 2010 earned-run average of 6.75 split between between Florida and Pittsburgh over 23 appearances.
"I didn’t want to do anything drastic," said Benedict, who visited Leroux in Indianapolis early last season after the latter was the final cut at the Pirates’ camp. "It was about putting a guy in his natural position to throw."
Benedict studied Leroux at AAA before sending him to AA Altoona (Pa.) to work with pitching coach Wally Whitehurst, a former major leaguer. Leroux still had some tendencies from being a converted catcher like leaving his fastball up and raising his body on his follow through rather than keeping his front side closed.
The challenge for Whitehurst was keeping Leroux aggressive in his approach but getting his arm path working better to help hide the ball, have it come out of his hand cleaner and find a slot that would match his slider.
No longer throwing over the top, the 27-year-old Leroux took three to five miles per hour off his fastball and saw more movement on the ball. He didn’t walk a batter in five appearances with Altoona, while striking out six.
"Once he got it," Benedict said, "he moved up to triple-A and had the confidence and slot," and a 2.80 ERA in 32 games with 57 punchouts in 61 innings pitched.
"You have to credit him," said Benedict, now the assistant to Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. "He was a willing and good student. He’s got a lot of thrower in his delivery but has a delivery now that he can be a thrower."
Leroux also has an out pitch. Last April, he struggled to put away hitters with two strikes, so he brought back the slurve — a pitch between a slider and curve with more downward break — that he threw in college at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
Leroux had abandoned the slurve since the Pirates claimed him off waivers from Florida on Sept. 13, 2010. Leroux was scared off the pitch after the Marlins "played with his mind" by telling him it was the reason he had to have elbow ligament replacement (Tommy John) surgery during his senior year of college in 2005.
"I don’t think they [Marlins] really understood the stuff that was going on in my arm, about catching, coming in at the end of games and pitching three innings. That in itself is going to put a lot of stress on someone’s arm," said Leroux, adding he was told by well-known surgeon Dr. James Andrews that it isn’t how a pitcher throws that leads to the Tommy John procedure but a weak ulnar collateral ligament.
"I finally decided I’m going to throw the way I know how to throw. When I started throwing [the slurve] the strikeouts just started coming. Now, with the addition of my changeup that I’ve developed the last year or so, I think I have a good repertoire of pitches that I can strike out a bunch of guys with."
That, coupled with the confidence Leroux gained last season has Pirates bullpen coach Euclides Rojas believing the pitcher will easily surpass the 23 appearances he recorded with the big club in 2011.
"The reason for him going to the Dominican and pitching [for Toros del Este in the Dominican League last November] was to give him confidence," Rojas told CBCSports.ca. "Every time out he had to use his repertoire of pitches and gain confidence, and I think that will help him this year."
Striking out the side every few relief appearances won’t hurt either for Leroux, who stands a good chance to break camp with Pittsburgh since he’s out of minor league options and would need to clear waivers to be sent to AAA.
"Last year was a year that I really needed," said Leroux. "I don’t want to say make or break year but it was really close to it. I showed at every level that I could pitch — big leagues, Dominican, AAA."
Rojas said Leroux showed better command following the Thames blast and was "more aggressive than I saw him last year." The coach later joked with the pitcher, telling him he would have to get him mad in subsequent outings by punching him in the face before Leroux took the mound.
"I’ve never been hit in the face before in my life, so I don’t know how it would feel," said Leroux.
Instead, he’ll take repeated pats on the back for a job well done this season.
The book on Chris Leroux
- Age: 27
- Hometown: Born in Montreal, raised in Mississauga, Ont.
- Position: Relief pitcher
- Throws: Right
- Bats: Left
- Height: 6-foot-6
- Weight: 225 pounds
- Drafted: by the Florida Marlins in the 7th round in 2005
- Signed: July 13, 2005MLB seasons: Three
- Teams: Florida Marlins (2009-2010); Pittsburgh Pirates (2010-present)
- Major league debut: May 26, 2009
- Games: 51
- Wins: 1
- Losses: 2
- ERA: 5.47
- Innings pitched: 54 1/3
- Strikeouts: 48