We have heard, repeated, and paraphrased the Theo Epstein line so many times: development is not linear. We know it intrinsically and we are reminded of it every season with countless examples.
And yet, Ben Leeper’s story is a whole different animal.
Leeper, now a 24-year-old reliever, went undrafted all three times he was eligible to be selected. His career ERA in college at Oklahoma State was 7.25, and during his final two seasons, he walked 29 batters in 38.2 innings.
Yet, after signing with the Cubs less than one year ago, he was assigned to High-A out of Spring Training, promoted to Double-A at the South Bend Cubs first practice, and quickly became the Tennessee Smokies’ most dominant reliever. So he was promoted again. For the season – his first pro experience, split between Double-A and Triple-A – Leeper has a 1.29 ERA in 21 innings, in large part thanks to a 33/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has struck out half of the last 38 batters he’s faced, two-thirds of those coming at the Triple-A level he reached in just his eleventh professional appearance. Heck, he hasn’t even given up a hit yet in his 6.2 innings with Iowa.
Leeper has established himself as the single best relief prospect in the farm system. How has that happened, given what preceded his time with the Cubs, and given how little time he’s had as a pro?
“It’s easy for me to get lost in everything that’s happening,” Leeper told me last week over the phone during the I-Cubs series with the St. Paul Saints. “I’ve had to remind myself to take deep breaths and just remember to be where my feet are.”
Part of what has allowed Leeper to negotiate a whirlwind of changing surroundings has been embracing the farm system’s best slider. The pitch is in the upper 80s, about 2600-2900 rpm, and essentially a gyro slider. This means it’s not a sweeping horizontal pitch, but due to a football spiral-like spin, produces late and extremely deceptive vertical break. It’s abnormal, which is the best compliment that the Cubs pitching development team can give a player.
One thing that’s helped is that Leeper throws the pitch using a grip that is, basically, one finger movement away from a four-seam fastball (he says he thinks of it as having 1.5 grips between the fastball and slider). It’s what Leeper calls his favorite pitch to throw, the one he uses as a re-set pitch when out of sorts, and comfortable against both right- and left-handed hitters. Neither side is batting above .135 against him in 2021.
“He’s a guy that has the utmost confidence in his slider and can throw that in any count,” said Double-A pitching coach Jamie Vermilyea, who was also Leeper’s contact point during the 2020-2021 offseason. “He doesn’t have to manipulate it or anything, just make a slight tweak and throw it like a fastball.”
The pitch pairs with a fastball that has been up to 98 mph this year (generally 95-96), and plays up due to its vertical approach angle. Leeper has a high spin rate on the four seamer (2500 rpm) but with just 75-85% spin efficiency, the pitch has cut movement that helps it better tunnel with the slider. Up and gloveside in the zone, particularly after he’s shown the slider, it’s absolute death on hitters.
Found this great YT video from @TheProsPipeline featuring an inning of Ben Leeper, Cubs UDFA signing that was 97 at Instructs. “I’m telling you, Ben’s a big leaguer,” is a nice source quote from my notes. Vid shows some cut on FB, can manipulate slider.https://t.co/VUUrQg6RZB
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) February 8, 2021
The biggest difference between the Leeper at Oklahoma State (in the video above) and the one in the Cubs system has been the command of that fastball. Leeper had his second Tommy John surgery as a sophomore at Oklahoma State (his first during high school), and the recovery was a difficult one. Leeper, who had thrown up to 95-96 mph in high school, was suddenly topping at 88-91 mph with a fastball he couldn’t control.
“Honestly I was very upset playing baseball then,” Leeper said. “It was the mental aspect of knowing I had [mid 90s] in my arm but it’s just not there.”
The velocity would eventually snap back out of nowhere, but the command was a years-long process of locking back in. Leeper generated a bit of draft interest during an up-and-down 2019 season, including from the Cubs, but expressed an interest in returning to college for his final season. Cubs area scout Ty Nichols stayed locked in on Leeper during 2020, and the organization pitched him on joining as an undrafted free agent.
“The Cubs were overly impressive, everything they said opened my eyes on the next step of my career,” Leeper said. “It was a no-brainer for me.”
The organization handed Leeper the autonomy to call his own game, which sometimes means five straight fastballs and sometimes means five straight sliders. They also suggested adding a curveball to Leeper’s mix, utilizing his natural ability to spin the ball (it can top 3,000 rpm), particularly to give left-handed hitters another look. It hasn’t been mixed in much yet – just 10 all season – but has been an active work-in-progress behind the scenes.
But mostly, Leeper hasn’t needed much instruction, as he showed up to Arizona for Instructs last October with the best velocity and best command of his life. Leeper said that everyday in Arizona, the participants would get lunch and eat outside at the Cubs facility. And he would pause, everyday, in front of the Major Leaguers locker room with his plate of food and take a moment.
“I would stop and say, ‘I wanna be here. What do I need to do to get in this locker room?'”
The answer, now, is just do a little bit more of what he’s doing.