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Scouting the California League: Visalia at Rancho Cucamonga, Jose De Leon dominates

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Scouting notes on skyrocketing Dodger prospect Jose De Leon and others from Visalia's visit to the Southland.

Dodgers prospect Jose De Leon fires what was likely a quite nasty pitch during Tuesday's start against Visalia
Dodgers prospect Jose De Leon fires what was likely a quite nasty pitch during Tuesday's start against Visalia
Ron Cervenka

Jose De Leon, RHP Los Angeles Dodgers

In front of a full gallery of scouts and big league brass, Jose De Leon picked a fine time to post one of his most dominating efforts to date, striking out a dozen men and holding a Visalia offense that entered play as the third highest-scoring in the California League to one dribbled infield single over seven shutout innings. The Puerto Rican righty stands a listed 6’2", 185 pounds, with a thick middle and slightly sloped shoulders. It’s a higher-maintenance body type, and there’s some evidence of less-than-ideal weight still hanging on his frame. He showed decent agility and flexibility in warm-ups though, and went through his pre-game routine under the watchful eye of a strength and conditioning coach.

De Leon's motion (and a good chunk of his success) is built around generating an exceptionally long stride. He gears his pre-break movements around an elastic leg kick, where he’ll rotate his back to three-quarters from the hitter’s point of view and really drive his knee past his hands to create coiled tension. He gets an aggressive push off the rubber, starting his weight transfer early and dropping his center of gravity rapidly as he drives forward.

He frequently toed the line of his balance points and his foot drag exaggerated from pitch to pitch, sometimes resulting in a delivery that had him nigh-on Tebowing at release or spinning out when he failed to properly corral his forward momentum. He managed to remain on balance far more often than he didn’t on this night, but it’s an area where I can see him struggling from time to time to maintain his arm angle and release point if anything’s out of whack with his lower half.

The lower half also warrants mention because his delivery creates a high amount of lower body stress. Beyond just the creation of that stress, he also controls the follow-through so abruptly to where there's little if any room for easy release of it after he delivers. I can see where the sore groin that limited him earlier in the season came from, as his plant leg absorbs all of the force of his delivery. He doesn't finish over his front side, and on most deliveries there's a noticeable lower half recoil off his front foot while his back leg just kind of drifts forward to near parallel. Coupled with the long stride, an inordinate amount of pressure ends up channeling through his left groin, hamstring, and that front knee.

The motion creates a bunch of deception though, both from how quickly he rockets through his turn once his hips fire and how long he gets from the rubber at his release point. The ball absolutely jumps out of his hand from a three-quarter slot, and that was evident in the amount of uncomfortable swings (and takes) Visalia’s lineup produced from start to finish in this outing.

The deception wouldn’t matter nearly as much, of course, if the supporting arsenal wasn’t enough to take full advantage. Certainly on this night there was no worry about that. De Leon had the kitchen sink at his disposal on Tuesday, showing plus projection on all three pitches and commanding each better than the next.

His fastball worked 90-94 (t95), primarily hovering around 91-92 early and ticking up to the higher end of the velocity band as he got ahead. He creates a solid amount of run with the pitch, and he showed an advanced ability to sequence the pitch north and south as well as east and west. He picked his spots to elevate and generated swings and misses with the pitch in all four quadrants of the zone and beyond. Whether he can command the pitch like he did tonight all the time is unclear, but it played as a 65 pitch in this start. I’d presume to knock my projection down to a 60 on a normal night for safety’s sake, but it’s a really good fastball.

His change was the secondary of choice in the early going, and it came in at 83-85 with strong tumbling action off his fastball plane. He really Bugs Bunny’d a few when he nailed the timing of his release, producing a hard snapping action out of the hand as the pitch darted down. He got a little loose in the zone with others, and his command of the pitch overall showed as lagging a bit behind the rest of his arsenal. The control was there, however, and hitters weren’t recognizing the pitch any earlier than they were his fastball. It played as a potent compliment with strong projection to a 55 or 60 pitch if the command cooperates.

He worked in his slider through the middle innings, and it also showed plus projection with a late bite and good tilt through two planes in the mid-80’s. There’s some velocity band overlap with his change, and some offerings lacked a bit of horizontal movement to where that could pose a problem against more advanced hitters. But outside of a bit of a hanger in his final inning that Kevin Cron took to the center field warning track he commanded the pitch well in this start and it helped his fastball play up all the more when he used the slider as a set piece.

This was obviously an extremely impressive performance, with De Leon's stuff and command both showing as well advanced beyond the level. Given that this start probably amounted to a 97th percentile showing I’m going to attempt to remain somewhat restrained in my enthusiasm. Still, he showed the kind of baseline fundamentals in his approach, arsenal, and execution to where strong number three starter seems like a reasonable jumping-off point for discussion of his OFP, with room for more if Tuesday was closer to rule than exception.

Other Notes:

Visalia shortstop Domingo Leyba (#8 organizational prospect) is an interesting player. He doesn’t show nearly the kind of prerequisite raw arm strength you’d expect from a shortstop, yet his gather and release are both lightning quick, enough so that it helps make up for at least a good chunk of the velocity deficit. He showed strong footwork, hand speed, and coordination, and while I’m skeptical he can stick on the left side the fact that the possibility even exists is a testament to the underlying defensive skillset. At the plate he was the only guy on the Visalia roster to really square a ball off De Leon, and he showed an intriguingly compact swing. His approach is exceedingly aggressive, and he has the look of a guy waiting for a late bus in the batter’s box. But he’s also an extremely young player for the level, and there's bat-to-ball skill here. If he can make some discernible strides in relaxing his approach a bit he'll warrant some significant future attention.

Acquired from Milwaukee in the Gerardo Parra deal last year, Visalia left-hander Anthony Banda got roughed up for six runs in his first two of four innings on Tuesday. He worked off a fastball at 88-91 that he struggled to command in the early going, and the secondary stuff wasn’t nearly crisp enough to overcome his poor showing with the primary weapon. He worked a flat change-up at 81-83 and an inconsistent curveball at 73-76 in the early going, though the latter pitch tightened up considerably in his last couple innings and missed some bats. He showed flashes of better command during that stretch as well, so it’s entirely possible his solid early-season statistical returns – most notably a nice improvement with his walk rate – were born out of some legitimate progress. I’d just as soon chalk this start up to a bad day, as he didn’t look particularly comfortable in the stretch at the outset, and he ran into some poor batted ball luck that kept him in that position for much of the early going.

Rancho first baseman Cody Bellinger (#21 organizational prospect) appears to be one of those players who takes a while to get a read on. At first glance he's an odd fit physically for first base, with a long, lean frame and loose physical actions. He moves around the bag easily and receives well, displaying easy plus defensive projection and at least begging the thought of whether his athleticism may be enough for him to try tackling a corner outfield spot. In the box his swing is long and rhythmic, and he showed an ability to drop the bat head and turn on the ball. There's going to be a bunch of swing-and-miss in his game though, and while a couple scouts I talked to pointed to the potential for above-average game power down the line it remains projection-only at this stage of his development.

On the almost exact opposite side of the first base profile coin, Visalia's Kevin Cron is an even larger version of his older brother. Standing a listed 6'5", 245 pounds he's a mountain of a man with the handful of advantages and many problems that go with the body type. He's got a lumbering gait in the field, with slow reactions and a poor first step, and his fielding actions and receiving were both stabby to the ball. He boxed one fairly difficult hard chopper while looking generally uncomfortable trying to work his way through proper footwork sequences around the bag. At the plate his brute strength helps make up for average bat speed, but the combination of a notably unbalanced weight transfer and aggressive approach was enough to make me question whether he's likely to develop anything close to a playable hit tool. Without that his plus raw power's not going to matter much.