Luis Enrique Leal | SP | 1980-1985
Luis Leal was born March 21, 1957, in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. The Blue Jays signed him as an amateur free agent in 1979 (at age 21).
He played for Dunedin, playing A ball, for most of 1979, going 12-2 with a 2.64 ERA in 21 starts, getting a late-season call up to Syracuse AAA at the end of the season.
Leal sta rted 1980 in AAA and got the call up to the majors at the end of May. He made his first MLB start against the Yankees on May 25. He threw 7.2 innings, allowing 12 hits, 3 earned, 4 walks, and no strikeouts, picking up the win. The Baseball Reference box score doesn’t include pitches thrown, but he must have been over 100. We didn’t have much of a lineup back then. Alfredo Griffin and his .267 OBP led off.
Luis made 5 not very successful starts in June and was sent back to the minors.
They brought him back as a September callup. He made 4 starts (including a complete game 2-hitter against the Yankees) and then finished the season in the bullpen. He finished with a 3-4 record and a 4.53 ERA in 13 games, 10 starts. He had more walks than strikeouts, 31 to 26 in 59.2 innings.
Leal started the strike-shortened 1981 season in the rotation, made 4 starts, and then bounced back and forth between the pen and the rotation the rest of the way. In all, he was 7-13 with a 3.68 ERA in 29 games, 19 starts. He held batters to a .254/.317/.352 line.
1982 was his best season, making 38 starts, throwing 249.2 innings with a 12-15 record and a 3.93 ERA, and a 5.1 bWAR. 250 innings is a fair amount for a 25-year old, but that’s what happened in those days. He threw 10 complete games. The last time the Jays as a team had 10 complete games was 2009.
In 1983 he had a 13-12 record, with a 4.31 ERA in 35 starts, 217.1 innings, and 7 complete games. His best start was a 2-hit shutout, July 14 against the White Sox (who would go on to win 99 games that year, with manager Tony La Russa (I wonder what happened to him)).
1984 was his last good season, going 13-8 with a 3.89 ERA in 35 starts and 222.1 innings. He threw a 2-hit shutout June 15 against the Red Sox at age 28.
Luis had his last season in the majors in 1985, going 8-3 with a 5.75 ERA in 15 games, 14 starts. His last start was on June 29th, going just 3 innings, giving up 3 earned on 2 home runs.
He stayed in the organization, pitching in Triple-A in 1986 and 1987, and finally was traded to the Braves, along with Damaso Garcia for Craig McMurty. He never pitched in the Braves system.
Career, Leal had a 51-58 record, a 4.14 ERA in 165 games, 151 starts. Batters hit .265/.325/.415 against him. When he left the Jays, he was number 3 in wins, starts, and most other pitchers stats on the Blue Jays leaders board behind Dave Stieb and Jim Clancy.
I don’t remember much about how he pitched. He was the basic fastball, slider, curve, and changeup guy. But I don’t remember if he was a hard thrower. My memory says he got by with more guile than stuff, but I could be wrong.
Leal is the leader in games pitched among ‘true Jays,’ players who didn’t pitch for any other team.
It was a pretty condensed career. Signed at 21, in the majors at 23, and finished in the majors at 28. Why did he drop off the table so quickly? Well, he threw 689 innings in 3 seasons, at a fairly young age, without much history throwing a ball. He didn’t get into baseball until he was 16. Like a lot of Venezuelan kids, he was more interested in soccer when he was younger.
Bill James compared how the MLB treated starting pitchers with how the Salem witch hunters tested witches. If they thought you were a witch, they would hold you underwater for five minutes. If you died, you weren’t a witch. If you survived, you were a witch, and they killed you. With pitchers, the team would have you throw 200+ innings for a few years, and if your arm doesn’t fall off, you are a starting pitcher. Baseball is more careful with young pitchers these days.
But, on top of all the innings, he wasn’t big on fitness. Leal was a big guy, and he didn’t take great care of himself. If you are going to throw 200+ innings a year, you really should keep yourself reasonably strong and fit. Baseball Reference lists him as 6’3” 205, but if he was 205 then I’m 165.
Likely there is a little from column a and a little from column b. I think the massive number of innings, added with the size together were the issue. Maybe he got worn down a little and didn’t have the strength to power through it. Of course, in those days, there could have been an undiagnosed arm issue.
There really isn’t much out there about Leal. A note in an old baseball book said he pitched better on three days rest than the normal four. He had a 3.39 ERA on three days and a 5.04 on four days. And, a weird bit of trivia, there was never a passed ball with him on the mound. He has the career record for most innings pitched without a passed ball. But he did have 23 wild pitches in his career, so I’m guessing the Blue Jays official scorer wasn’t big on giving passed balls.
In retirement, he was the pitching coach for the Venezuelan World Cup team.
The fun part about doing a list like this is remembering guys like Leal who don’t get mentioned very often. The problem is that there is very, very little out there about him and I don’t remember much about him. If you have any memories of Leal share them below.
Can I just say I hate that we only have a black and white picture of him. We had color photography in the 1980s. Why are pretending it was the 1920s?
Luis Leal’s place among Blue Jay pitching leaders:
ERA (>500 innings): 11nd, 4.14
Wins: 11th, 51
Walks per 9 innings: 13th, 3.044
Innings: 9th, 946.1
Strikeouts: 22nd, 491
Starts: 8th, 151
Complete Games: 6th, 27