From his first day in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, Patrick Leonard was overshadowed. How could he not be? He was acquired in the James Shields trade along with Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery. Myers became the Rookie of the Year, Odorizzi won the Rays’ fifth starter job this season, and Montgomery is suddenly regaining the form the once made him a top prospect. Leonard was a good prospect in his own right, but he could not hold a candle to that. If Leonard was going to start attracting attention, though, his recent 11-game stretch would be the way he would do so.
In his 50 plate appearances for High-A Charlotte from April 15th through the 27th, Leonard managed a .405/.480/.480 line with 6 doubles, 3 homers, 9 RBI, and a 9-7 strikeout to walk ratio. His hit streak reached 11 games before ended two nights ago. And the streak has certainly given his overall numbers a boost as he has hit to a .310/.385/.595 line in 91 plate appearances. What it a difference it is for Leonard just one year after he managed just .225/.303/.345 line in 493 plate appearances at Low-A Bowling Green.
Why is it now that Leonard is finally breaking out? There are a variety of factors to consider, and all of them could be playing a role. To begin, Leonard was playing his first season in a new organization and must have felt additional pressure trying to prove himself. That is the best storyline, but probably the least relevant thing here. The three big things to note are that Leonard was 20 years old last season and was in his first professional season at first base. It is difficult to adjust to professional baseball, especially when moving to full-season ball for the first time, and many prospects, even talented ones, falter initially.
For Leonard in 2013, the most interesting part of his season was his struggles against left-handed pitching as a right-handed hitter as he managed just a .198/.235/.271 line. Aren’t those the pitchers Leonard is supposed to mash? Yes, but in Leonard’s case, 2013 may have been his first time seeing formidable left-handed pitchers on a regular basis, and it took him a while to adjust. This season, he has a .300/.348/.800 line versus lefties in the early going, drilling half of his 4 home runs against them despite facing them in just a quarter of his plate appearances. We will have to see if that lasts, but learning to tee off against opposite-side pitchers will be a big boost to Leonard’s numbers moving forward.
The other factor is Leonard’s defense. 2013 was Leonard’s first season at first base after playing previously at third base, and he wound up making 99 starts at the pitching. Even though first base is an easier position, any transition takes time and diverts focus away from other things. But in Leonard’s case, the switch was especially jarring because he played shortstop in high school. Leonard is a big guy at 6’4″, 225 now, but he entered the 2011 MLB Draft at an athletic 6’3″, 200 middle infielder. To go from that player to a first baseman in the span of two years is quite a change, and Leonard had to get used to it. While we are talking about Leonard filling out, it is also worth noting that he had to learn how to play within his new skin to tap more consistently into his power. Right now, Leonard is using those extra 25 pounds of muscle to the fullest extent, and it will be exciting to see just how many extra-base hits he will rack up.
Patrick Leonard is still a long way from the major leagues. While his three fellow trade acquisitions will all see time in the major leagues this season, Leonard is likely two years from his big league debut even in the best-case scenario. Now that Leonard has finally hit his stride, however, we can look at that development time a little differently. Instead of being the unknown player in the James Shields trade, Leonard is becoming the cherry on top that could turn the deal into even more of a victory for the Rays.