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After taking the tech plunge, Ponce de Leon aims to earn a permanent address as 'impact pitcher'

After taking the tech plunge, Ponce de Leon aims to earn a permanent address as 'impact pitcher'

Cardinals Mets Spring Baseball

The Cardinals' Daniel Ponce de Leon pitches in a spring training game against the New York Mets on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Jeff Roberson, Associated Press)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Before heading home for the offseason, Daniel Ponce de Leon took a detour to Seattle, found a cheap hotel, rented a car, strapped on some cutting edge sensors, and charted a new direction for his career.

The Cardinals’ righthander had spent two seasons migrating from Class AAA Memphis to the majors and back again almost every other month, and he ended last season with the sensation his delivery had started to mirror those transactions — up and down and unpredictable, never steady. The Cardinals’ loss in the National League Championship Series was less than 10 days old when he visited the pitching gurus at Driveline Baseball’s training facility for an intensive, five-day, tech-driven evaluation — and upgrade.

“I knew if I want answers,” he said, “they had them.”

From his deliberate delivery to a new grip on his changeup, the returns on his $6,000 investment to engineer who he could be as a pitcher have thrust Ponce de Leon into the Cardinals’ conversation for any and all openings on the pitching staff. He could win a spot in the rotation, muscle his way to being the closer, or start the season as a hybrid, able to carry innings or safeguard leads. In his second appearance of spring, Ponce de Leon pitched three scoreless innings and struck out four New York Mets on Friday at Clover Park. He ran his spring totals to five scoreless innings, seven strikeouts, and one walk with an aggressive use of his fastball.

The righthander elevated a 95-mph fastball to strike out the second batter he faced, and he force-fed former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow seven consecutive fastballs to end his first inning with a strikeout. He needed 13 pitches for a scoreless third inning, five of which were breaking balls.

“He was terrific,” manager Mike Shildt said. “That was really what he’s capable of doing — just in control with multiple plus-pitches. Clearly, if he’s got that kind of stuff, it plays here for sure.”

Although he didn’t pitch much in September — a fact he pointed out publicly as the playoffs approached — Ponce de Leon had the right advocates and earned a spot on the postseason roster as a long reliever. He appeared once, in the NLCS, and how the season ended underscored his uncertainty. After his major-league debut in 2018, Ponce de Leon had been optioned to the minors seven times and promoted eight. In between tours along Interstate 55, he mixed in 12 starts and 24 appearances along with an appealing 3.31 ERA and a 9.1 strikeout rate per nine innings.

He’d been a spot starter and a long reliever, but due to some inconsistencies that were both physical and mechanical, he’s yet to be a fixture.

“Somebody else can be the new Ponce,” he said. “I just want to be the one in the big leagues, not the one back and forth where, hey, we need a start here, c’mon up one day and then sent back down.”

He saw a way to stay in St. Louis, by way of Seattle.

With the help of his agent and his $5,000 payment for review and instruction, Ponce de Leon scheduled time at Driveline for immediately after the season’s end. Including a $100-a-night hotel, a $100 rental car, and the last-minute flight, he estimated a $6,000 expense. On his first day, he got a crash course in what that money got him. First, some soreness. The pitching evaluators had him strip down to his briefs and hooked him up for a biomechanics analysis, complete with reflective markers. They challenged him to throw a “high-intensity bullpen.” His arm had cooled from a week off, but he let loose.

He topped out at 87 mph.

“Nothing left, you know,” Ponce de Leon said.

What he learned from the scan and the three-dimensional model of his delivery created by the computer confirmed his suspicions. Ponce de Leon, 28, felt that his delivery had gone astray, tracing its erosion to soreness in his lower back. He did not know how to get the delivery untracked, and counted on Driveline to give him a plan. He used the tech to see his foot strike on the mound, his shoulder rotation, hip rotation, and elbow extension — and looking at that kinetic chain saw where his hips lagged behind. He also saw how to correct it.

Driveline gave him a series of drills to do, touchstones he can return to if he feels the delivery drifting, and Driveline coordinated an individual instructor he could contact throughout the winter for guidance. Dean Jackson, Driveline's manager of online training, wrote in a text how the drills were individualized for Ponce de Leon to address "biomechanical deficiencies." That included the use of sand-filled balls as he worked to strengthen his delivery and have it become muscle memory.

“Every offseason, I get done and I go ... over what I think I’m going to work on this year, and then it never works out,” Ponce de Leon said. “I don’t know what I’m doing, not on my own. This year, I felt so good, and I felt so close, that I felt like I should have a plan. I’m all in. I’m just all in.”

Other days at Driveline were spent crafting pitches. He had each of his measured for spin rate, movement, gyro and more — all to dissect their effectiveness.

The fastball and curve? Data approved.

“Didn’t even mess with those two,” he said.

The changeup shifted from a four-seam to a two-seam grip.

The cutter — better than he believed, almost ready for prime time.

He loosed one in his first appearance of spring to get a double-play groundout. He tried several more Friday, but allowed a single on one and didn’t get the reactions he wanted from the others. His curveball plunged. His fastball played. Starter Adam Wainwright watched and said later, “He’s got a little different fastball (and) he can throw that sucker down the middle and watch people swing and miss it.” All four of his strikeouts were swings and misses on fastball, and not at the same location.

“My very first start was one of my best starts I’ve had because I was so peaceful,” Ponce de Leon said of the time he teased a no-hitter in Cincinnati in 2018. “It’s almost like I’m back to that peace-line. I know I have got this.”

He pantomimed throwing a fastball.

“I know I can bring this,” he said.

He snapped his wrist for a curve.

“And sometimes one of these,” he added.

He swiped his fingers to simulate a cutter.

Almost halfway through spring training, Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux spoke in the past few days about possible pitching scenarios. They looked at what their choices for the rotation would mean for the bullpen and how to start assigning innings in the coming weeks. They discussed how Ponce de Leon could still fit as either starter or reliever, and would get the innings to continue to make his case because regardless of title there’s a growing sense of the role he could play. Shildt called it “impact pitcher.”

Daniel Ponce de Leon, 2.0.

“Hopefully,” Ponce de Leon said. “Now Daniel Ponce De Leon with something more to offer other than a fastball most of the time.”

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