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SF Giants: RHP Dominic Leone belongs on the Opening Day roster

Cleveland Baseball Team relief pitcher Dominic Leone (53) celebrates with teammates after the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. (Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)
Cleveland Baseball Team relief pitcher Dominic Leone (53) celebrates with teammates after the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. (Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)
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SF Giants, Dominic Leone
Former Cleveland Baseball Team relief pitcher Dominic Leone (53) delivers in the seventh inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. He now looks primed for another big-league opportunity with the SF Giants. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

With time dwindling before Opening Day, the SF Giants will soon announce their first 26-man roster of the season. After optioning outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr on Sunday, the offensive side of the ball seems set. The organization’s pitching staff, though, particularly the bullpen, still has some uncertainty remaining. Non-roster invitee Dominic Leone deserves one of the final spots on the Opening Day roster.

Leone has easily been the most dominant Giants reliever this spring. Across eight appearances, he has allowed just one earned run through 7.2 innings with 13 strikeouts and just two walks. Some other non-roster invitees have shown similar strikeout rates; none have done so while avoiding walks and generating soft contact like Leone.

The SF Giants should give Dominic Leone an opportunity on the Opening Day roster.

The Giants signed Leone this offseason to a minor-league deal. However, he has plenty of big-league experience. In fact, he has pitched for an MLB team in every season since 2014. He has a career 4.09 ERA (4.06 FIP) across 249 appearances (253 innings). The 29-year-old did struggle mightily with Cleveland last season, recording an 8.38 ERA in 12 appearances.

Leone’s slider has easily been his best pitch. Over the past four seasons, hitters whiffed on at least 40% of swings against his breaking and batted just .169 with an abysmal .247 slugging percentage against it. He also throws three variations of a fastball (4-seam, cutter, and sinker). His 4-seamer and sinker sit in the mid-90s, while his cutter averages around 90 mph.

Yet, as dominant as his slider has been, he threw it just  9.5% of the time in 2017, 4.6% of the time in 2018, 14.5% of the time in 2018, and 35.6% of the time in 2020. The Giants have shown a willingness to encourage pitchers to use their secondaries more. Spring training pitch-tracking data is not available to the public, but his preseason success would seem to suggest he has continued increasing his slider’s usage.

Granted, Leone threw his slider more than ever before in 2020, but it did not translate to improved run prevention. At the same time, he struck out a career-high 34% of the batters he faced (he’s struck out 40.6% of opposing batters this spring), and fell victim to quite a bit of bad luck. Leone suffered from a .478 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), 37.5% home run-to-flyball rate (HR/FB%), and 67.6% strand rate. All three stats regress to league averages, and in the case of BABIP and HR/FB%, Leone’s numbers were exorbitantly high. His 3.03 xFIP, which estimates ERA by controlling for BABIP and HR/FB%, was actually better than any Giants reliever in 2020.

San Francisco has a spot or two unsettled in their Opening Day bullpen. Assuming Leone makes the team, the Giants would still have to designate a player from the 40-man roster for assignment. There are a few obvious candidates to be forced off the roster and he has shown more than enough to justify exposing one of those players to waivers.

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Perhaps even if Dominic Leone had no obvious paths to improvement, he would have been a strong bounce-back candidate in 2021. With the SF Giants’ continued willingness to push players to use their secondary pitches more, he could be primed to reach a level of success he never has before. Needless to say, he deserves a spot on the team’s Opening Day roster.

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