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Hard-Luck Pitcher José DeLeón Passes Away

Al McBean

On Sunday, José DeLeón, a hard-luck pitcher for five major league teams from 1983-95, died at the age of 63. For his career, he was 86-119 with a 3.76 ERA, 1.263 WHIP, 3.61 FIP, and 1,594 strikeouts. But statistics don’t even begin to tell his story. Twice he led the majors with 19 losses. Both times, his team finished 11th of 12 National League teams in runs scored. Twice he recorded more than 200 strikeouts in a season, leading the National League once. His career featured near no-hitters, double-digit strikeout games, and long losing streaks. He was the first pitcher in MLB history to record more than 1,500 strikeouts and not win 100 games.

Pitcher José DeLeón Passes Away at 63

DeLeón was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third round of 1979’s June Amateur Draft out of high school. He made his Pirates debut on July 23, 1983, at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, defeating the San Francisco Giants, 5-2. In his second outing, he had a no-hitter going against the San Diego Padres at home until one out in the seventh inning. He hung on to pitch his first complete game, winning 10-1. In his third game, he had a no-hitter going against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium until there was one out in the ninth. The Mets would win that game, 1-0, in 12 innings, portending what was to come the next year. DeLeón finished 1983 with a 7-3 record, a 2.83 ERA, an impressive 2.51 FIP, and 9.8 strikeouts per nine.

DeLeón, Bad-Luck Pitcher

In 1984, DeLeón flirted with four more no-hitters, but the Pirates lost three of those games. Against the Atlanta Braves on May 20, he didn’t give up a hit until the eighth. The bullpen allowed the runner to score and the Braves won, 5-1. On June 20 against the Chicago Cubs, he lost his no-hit bid with two outs in the sixth. He would pitch a complete game three-hitter and win, 5-1.

Facing the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 17, he lost his no-hitter with one out in the seventh when Ken Landreaux homered. The Dodgers had scored an earlier run without a hit. DeLeon lost the game, 5-0. Finally, in the height of absurdity, he pitched six perfect innings against the Cincinnati Reds, only to see the seventh unravel thanks to a walk, two errors, and a single by Dave Parker. The Pirates only mustered three hits that evening and lost, 2-0.

The 1985 Pirates were saddled with several malcontents who wanted out of Pittsburgh. It was one of the worst teams in Pirates history, finishing the season at 57-104. In DeLeon’s first four starts that year, the Pirates scored a total of two runs. DeLeon began the season 0-3. Fearful that he needed a shutout every time out, he lost his composure and finished the year with an unsightly 2-19 record.

On to Chicago

Syd Thrift took over as Pirates general manager in 1986. Much to his dismay, he learned that the previous regime had lost Bobby Bonilla, whom Thrift had signed when he was a scout for the Pirates, to the Chicago White Sox in the 1985 Rule 5 Draft. He got Bonilla back on July 23, 1986, trading DeLeon to the White Sox. DeLeón had pitched poorly for the Pirates that year. Thrift believed DeLeon could still become a great pitcher, just not in Pittsburgh. He felt that for DeLeón, taking the mound at Three Rivers was like returning to the scene of an accident. With the White Sox, DeLeón recorded a 2.96 ERA in 13 starts in 1986. But he was just so-so in 1987, after which he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.

St. Louis Blues

In St. Louis, it looked like his career was turning around. Pitching for a bad Cardinals team in 1988, he was 13-10 with a 3.67 ERA, 1.260 WHIP, 2.84 FIP, and 208 strikeouts. The following year, he led the league with 201 strikeouts and just 6.4 hits per nine. His 1989 stat line showed a 16-12 record, 3.05 ERA, 1.034 WHIP, and 3.02 FIP. Unfortunately, in 1990, bad luck would rear its ugly head again. As a pitcher for a weak Cardinals offensive team, DeLeon was 7-19. Manager Whitey Herzog would resign in midseason, claiming he couldn’t get the team to play anymore. New manager Joe Torre thought he could give DeLeón a much-needed confidence boost.

In 1991, DeLeón was 5-9 despite a 2.71 ERA. However, the next year he was 2-8 with a 4.37 ERA before the Cardinals had seen enough. They released him at the end of August. Then it was on to the Philadelphia Phillies, back to the White Sox, then to the Montreal Expos, finishing his career without distinction.

The Last Word

To realize the greatness of DeLeón as a pitcher, let’s take a deep dive into his career numbers. Against DeLeón, Justin Verlander, despite mixed results last year, has allowed opponents to hit .225/.283/.361 against him. Or one might consider the late, light-hitting shortstop Ed Brinkman, whose career average was .224. So, think of DeLeon as if every batter he faced was Brinkman. Finally, DeLeón struck out 20 percent of all batters faced. During this time, the MLB average strikeout rate was 14.9 percent. This was the era before launch angles, steroids, and tiny infielders trying to belt every pitch out of the park.

Baseball fans will remember him for many exciting performances on the mound.


Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports


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