LeBlanc hoping he's found home with Pirates

Veteran lefty's career has sent him around the world and back

LeBlanc hoping he's found home with Pirates

BRADENTON, Fla. -- In eight Major League seasons, Wade LeBlanc has played for seven teams. He's used to moving around.

Last year alone took the veteran left-hander from Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla., to Buffalo, N.Y., back to the big leagues in Seattle, then down to Triple-A Tacoma and, finally, to Pittsburgh. The previous year? To Japan and back again.

"As long as I have a jersey," said LeBlanc, sitting in the Pirate City clubhouse last week.

The 32-year-old got a jersey last September from the Pirates, pitched well and kept his No. 38 uniform by signing a one-year deal with an option for 2018. Now, after a couple of whirlwind years, he's competing for a spot in Pittsburgh's bullpen.

"It's great to know someone sees that type of value in you. I've never had that before," LeBlanc said. "I'm just going to try to make good on it, keep my head down and keep doing what I've been doing."

After bouncing around the big leagues, LeBlanc accepted a deal to pitch for the Japanese Pacific League's Seibu Lions in 2015. He moved with his wife, Natalie, and two young sons, Jackson and Eli, taking an open-minded attitude that typically leads to success overseas.

The Louisiana native learned about the Japanese culture and language, ate food he may never eat again and sought out stories and scenes that would stick with him for life.

"That's what we did," LeBlanc said. "God had other plans, and here we are."

He made only eight starts for Seibu. He spent time in the club's farm system and dealt with a minor forearm injury, and the Lions released him before the season ended. His family lived an hour-long train ride away from the ballpark in Japan, and LeBlanc chose to return in part so his baseball-loving sons could watch him pitch in person.

Still, the experience proved to be valuable. Japanese hitters forced him to adjust his style, and he respected the pitchers' willingness to throw their best offering in any count, no matter the situation.

"You take that and you understand that it doesn't matter what pitch is called, they're going to throw it with conviction because they can throw it for a strike," LeBlanc said. "That made such a difference for me."

He caught the Pirates' attention by dominating for the Blue Jays' Triple-A Buffalo affiliate, posting a 1.71 ERA in 14 starts. The Mariners picked him up in late June and eventually designated him for assignment.

Desperately needing arms to patch up a decimated pitching staff, the Pirates acquired LeBlanc on Sept. 13 and plugged him into their bullpen. His first seven appearances were scoreless, and he ultimately allowed one earned run over 12 innings.

Over 62 total innings, LeBLanc posted the highest strikeout rate (20.2 percent) and lowest walk rate (4.4 percent) of his career. His changeup has always been his best offspeed pitch, making him vulnerable to left-handed hitters, but he had to get comfortable facing them in Japan.

He experimented with his pitch sequencing and made it work to his advantage, limiting lefties to a .680 OPS, well below his career mark of .879.

"They have so many lefty hitters, and they all hit the same way," LeBlanc said. "You have to learn how to pitch inside on them and do different things."

Over the years, LeBlanc has shown the type of professional perseverance that appeals to manager Clint Hurdle, a staunch advocate of "human analytics." In LeBlanc, Hurdle sees an unquantifiable passion, mental toughness and willingness to do whatever it takes.

"The man has no ego. He's been a survivor," Hurdle said. "He knows what he needs to do to be at the top of his game. He's a very honest self-evaluator, very diligent, very conscientious. I like the man, and I like the skill-set of a guy that's been around."

LeBlanc has not necessarily secured a roster spot. His contract is non-guaranteed, so the Pirates could cut him loose next month and pay only part of his salary. But they clearly admire his ability and attitude, so perhaps LeBlanc is done moving around for now.

"You don't really have any expectations going into it," LeBlanc said. "Just take the ball when they give it to you, get ready for the season, whether on April 1 you're here or somewhere else. You never know."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.