Luis Enrique Leal Alvarado | SP | 1980-1985 | Career Stats
Luis Leal symbolizes what I enjoy most about lists like this. We all know about Orlando Hudson and Paul Molitor, and their careers have, and will continue to be, very well-documented. On the other hand, Leal is a forgotten entity, a player whose performance was well-regarded in his time but has become more or less forgotten years later. Lists similar to this grant us the opportunity to revisit the careers of players with whom we should probably be more familiar. In the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, a lengthy portion of the book is dedicated to players who match this description. The lives and careers of great but relatively obscure players such as Lon Warneke and Bob Friend are described in great detail, and they're as, if not more, interesting than the lives and careers of many highly-publicized baseball immortals. To be fair, Leal's career wasn't nearly as accomplished or impressive as those described in that book, but it was productive enough to grant him the designation as the 31st greatest Blue Jay of all-time, so it's time to give him his due recognition.
Leal's ascension to the majors seemingly began as quickly as it ended. He didn't begin playing baseball until the age of 15, electing instead to focus his athletic energy towards soccer. However, he must've picked up the finer nuances of the game rather quickly because he was already on the radar of major league organizations by his late teens, and was signed by the Blue Jays as an amateur free agent at the age of 21. He soared through the minor leagues, posting a 19-7 record in one-and-a-half seasons. One cause for concern, though, was that he posted relatively low strikeout rates despite his success.
As expected, those strikeout rates didn't improve in the majors, as he posted a 3.92 K/9 ratio in his first season. All those balls in play led to a good number of hits allowed (almost 11 per 9 IP). In the end, he was very fortunate that his ERA was only 4.53 (96 ERA+), because his peripherals suggest that it should've been much worse. He posted a 26/31 K/BB ratio and WHIP of 1.73, for instance. Also, on June 2, 1980, he set an AL record by giving up five consecutive base hits to begin a game. Of course, he was still very young and inexperienced, and since Toronto was a rather young franchise itself, he would be given ample opportunity to prove himself.
Although he posted 7-13 record during the 1981 season, his sophomore year, by lowering his WHIP to a more respectable 1.32 and raising his K/9 ratio by more than a full point (from 3.92 to 4.93, which is still somewhat low). It wasn't until the next season, however, that he experienced his true breakout.
By 1982, Leal was no longer a swingman who alternated between the starting rotation and the bullpen. He started 38 games that season and threw an incredible 249.7 innings, far and away the highest single-season total of his career thus far.
He maintained that success and stamina for the next couple seasons, proving that he was a capable middle-of-the-rotation starter. On May 15, 1983, in a game against the Cleveland Indians, Leal threw a no-hitter for five innings before a rain delay forced him out of the game. However, Roy Lee Jackson only gave up one hit in relief, so the two of them combined to throw a one-hitter.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, his production completely dropped off in 1985, his age 28 season. Conflicting opinions exist as to why he suffered such a fate. Some attribute it to overuse by the manager, as evidenced by his very high innings pitched totals. Conversely, some attribute his decline to poor conditioning that finally did him in. I think it was likely a combination of both. Of course, it's difficult for a pitcher to sustain that much physical abuse season after season. Leal didn't have an extensive amateur career, so his arm was certainly not used to such a grueling workload. Additionally, his poor conditioning likely caused those innings to feel much longer and strenuous than they would be for pitchers who've logged similar totals. The root of the problem is likely slightly more complex than that, however.
During his playing days, Leal didn't possess the prototypical athletic physique. He was noticeably overweight, which sometimes led to ridicule by the media. According to Dave Till's Memory Project, "Sportswriter John Robertson wrote that Leal got knocked out early on Mr. Submarine Sport Bag Day in 1984 so that he could get first dibs on the large party sub in the Jays' clubhouse."
Leal remains actively involved in the game. During the WBC, he was the pitching coach for the Venezuelan team, which allowed him to form a close relationship with current Blue Jay Gustavo Chacin.
Before finishing this writeup, I'd like to mention one remarkable feat Leal accomplished during his career: He holds the record for most innings pitched without giving up a passed ball, and it's by a fair margin, too. In second place, Bob Milacki allowed zero passed balls in 795.7 IP, 148.7 innings less than the amount Leal pitched.