Any good team, and in particular any unexpectedly good team, will feature some number of surprising contributors—ostensible gap-fillers who end up becoming integral to the team’s success. The Seattle Mariners, despite the loss of their superstar Robinson Cano in early May, are 23 games above .500, a mere game and a half out of first place in a division that most had preemptively handed to the Astros pre-season. They are perhaps baseball’s most unexpected good team.
The wins in themselves often come in unexpected ways, in the form of one-run victories, comebacks, and leads narrowly held onto. But while the Mariners continue to win by the slimmest of margins, the gap they have built between themselves and the have-nots in the American League continues to grow wider as the season wears on. Lucky though one may think it is, lucky though it appears to be, the Mariners’ success is of large enough scope that it can’t be ignored. The probability of their lengthy playoff drought ending this season is creeping up on 90 percent. Whether or not you believe that the means by which they’ve achieved their standing are in some way fraudulent, the results are certainly real.
And a great deal of the responsibility for these unexpectedly good results rests on the shoulders of a rotation for whom pretty much nobody had high hopes before the season: the spectacular but oft-injured James Paxton, the diminished former superstar Felix Hernandez, the unproven Marco Gonzales, the fine but overly-expensive Mike Leake. After Erasmo Ramirez went down with an injury in early May, Seattle’s ragtag starting five had another uninspiring name incorporated into it: Wade LeBlanc.
LeBlanc, now 34, has been in professional baseball since he was 21, a late first-round pick by the San Diego Padres in 2006. The list of teams he’s played for and transactions he’s been involved in—promoted, demoted, traded, released, outrighted, designated for assignment—is of a length comparable to a Biblical genealogy. Whether as a starter or in relief, he has been a useful but unassuming left-handed soft-tosser, a competent innings-eater and depth piece that some team always needs at some point, but who is never needed in the same place for very long. He has pitched for the Padres, Marlins, Astros, Angels, Yankees, Pirates, and Mariners. He pitched in Japan with the Seibu Saitama Lions for a season, and then he came back. He pitched in Pittsburgh last year; this year, the Mariners signed him just a few days before the season began, when March was almost over.
The one defining trait of LeBlanc’s career, apart from the consistent mid-80s velocity on his fastball, has been his transience—bouncing from minors to majors, team to team, league to league, continent to continent. Over the 13 years that he has been a professional baseball player, his longest stint of consecutive seasons with the same organization was with the Padres, the team that drafted him, where he spent his first six seasons in pro ball. Over those six seasons, LeBlanc had four separate stints in the major leagues, sandwiched between trips on the Triple-A shuttle. He never spent more than a season in the same organization after that.
The overwhelming majority of baseball fans interact with the sport in terms of the team they root for. Players become important to you because of how important they are to your team; you want the best players to come to your team, and you want them to stay. Relegated to the backs of everyone’s collective minds are the filler guys on the 25-man: acquired and exchanged as footnotes in trades with more important headliners, or claimed off waivers, or signed as minor league free agents, here in May and gone by August. They come out of the bullpen in blowouts or off the bench in September, on the shuttle when a starter goes down with an injury, and their names become trivia exercises for fans at the end of the season—wait, that guy played for us? No one really cares when they arrive, and no one really cares when they leave.
That’s the cruel reality of professional sports, the tradeoff for getting to play out your childhood dreams for an audience of millions and an extremely comfortable living. Even having reached the very highest echelon of your chosen profession and sticking there for years, you can be forgettable. You can be successful, and at the same time a failure in motion. Players like LeBlanc are on a level to play against the greatest of all time in Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, but not on a level that begets the security of knowing in what city they and their families will be living the next year, or to be considered worthy of an investment on anything more than an as-needed basis. Objectively speaking, they are among the best of the best in the world at this skill. But they’re just not good enough.
Wade LeBlanc, once a first-round draft pick, thought his career was done in 2011, when he was sent down to Triple-A for the eighth time by the Padres. He thought he was done again after the 2014 season, when no major league organization would offer him a job, and after his season in Japan, where he posted a pedestrian at best 4.23 ERA in eight starts. He remained, though, developing a cutter and a new delivery at the behest of a taxi driver, despite the fact that the highest velocity his fastball has averaged over a month at any point in his career was just over 90. And now, on what is probably the best team he’s ever played for, he seems to have figured it out.
As a starter for the Mariners this season, LeBlanc has a 2.89 ERA; his strikeout rate is at a career high, and his walk rate two tenths of a percent off a career low. He’s not really an ace, and at this point, he likely never will be. But he’s been the Mariners’ fourth-best pitcher, behind only Paxton, Gonzales, and Edwin Diaz. He’s been good enough to be worth keeping around.
On Tuesday morning, the Seattle Mariners signed LeBlanc to a $2.75 million extension for 2019, with club options extending to the next three seasons beyond that, the first extension he’s ever signed in his career. And on Tuesday afternoon, LeBlanc made his 12th start of the season. He pitched seven innings of three-hit ball, allowing only one earned run, and the Mariners won their eighth straight game.