Once described as the “best losing pitcher in baseball,”1 Jose DeLeon was an enigma for most of his major-league career. As a starting pitcher, he showed promise, including periods of brilliance, but he usually ended up frustrating his teams, which eventually gave up on him because he had a difficult time winning games.
The first eight seasons of DeLeon’s major-league career were like a roller-coaster ride, intermixing near no-hitters and double-digit strikeout games with numerous losing streaks. His won-lost record was often plagued by a lack of run support and playing for losing teams, but he was also responsible at times for his own periods of mediocrity stemming from losses of self-confidence and difficulties in managing his pitch repertoire. Thus, his volatile career was difficult to assess from year to year and sometimes even within a season. He was labeled “certifiable ace” one year and “hard-luck loser” the next.
DeLeon was born on December 20, 1960, in Rancho Viejo, LaVega, Dominican Republic, the son of Elipidio DeLeon who was a catcher in the Dominican League. His father was one of nine brothers who once played together on a team managed by his grandfather. Two of the brothers went on to play professional baseball, which inspired young DeLeon to pursue baseball as a career.2
His father was unable to support six children working in the Dominican rice fields, so he got a job in a leather factory in New York City, and eventually sent for his family. They settled in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City, in 1972 when DeLeon was nearly 12 years old.3 His father took employment in an air-conditioning parts factory while his mother worked in a coat factory.4
In his sophomore season at Perth Amboy High School, DeLeon led the state in strikeouts, averaging two per inning, as he compiled a 10-3 record. However, he dropped out of school during his junior year to live with his grandmother in the Dominican Republic for a while.5
Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Harding Peterson, who grew up near Perth Amboy, had been told in 1977 by an acquaintance, Sam Marsicano, that DeLeon, then a high-school freshman, was a promising player. After DeLeon attended a workout in Pittsburgh, the Pirates began following his development in high school. Peterson learned that DeLeon wouldn’t be eligible to play scholastic sports as a senior, and with special permission from the commissioner’s office, he was eligible for the June 1979 draft.6 “We took him in the third round. We didn’t want to take a chance of drafting him lower and perhaps losing him,” Peterson said.7
Making his professional debut with the rookie league Gulf Coast League Pirates in 1979, DeLeon demonstrated that he was pretty raw as a player, posting an ERA of 6.41 and WHIP of 1.932 in 59 innings pitched.
The 6-foot-3 right-hander showed a propensity for striking out batters and progressed to Triple-A Portland by 1982, but with a 1.706 WHIP, he was still not very efficient. However, things seemed to click for DeLeon in 1983 with Triple-A Hawaii, when he dramatically lowered his ERA to 3.04, averaged nine strikeouts per nine innings, sported a WHIP of 1.241, and won 11 games in 20 starts. His results produced a Pacific Coast League all-star team selection.8
DeLeon’s performance with Hawaii earned him a call-up to the Pirates, who had won 10 of 11 games to secure sole possession of first place in the NL East Division on July 21. DeLeon made his major-league debut on July 23 against the San Francisco Giants, when he started and pitched into the ninth inning, allowing only two runs on four hits, striking out nine, and claiming the win.
DeLeon’s next two outings were even better. He won a four-hit complete game against the San Diego Padres on July 27 in which the Padres didn’t get their first hit until Alan Wiggins hit a single with one out in the seventh inning. Then DeLeon threw a nine-inning one-hitter in the second game of a doubleheader against the New York Mets on July 31. Hubie Brookssingled with one out in the ninth inning to break up DeLeon’s no-hitter. In front of family and friends in Shea Stadium, DeLeon walked only three batters and whiffed 11. (The Mets won the game, 1-0, in the 12th inning.) Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, who couldn’t recall a rookie pitcher coming so close to back-to-back no-hitters, said of DeLeon, “He could be the difference for us in the race.”9
But Tanner’s Pirates fell short of a division title, finishing second behind Philadelphia, which advanced to the World Series. DeLeon upheld his part by finishing the season with a 7-3 record, including another game (August 20) in which he got into the seventh inning before yielding a hit. He posted a 2.83 ERA and struck out 118 batters in 108 innings in 15 starts, earning him a few votes for the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
With his auspicious rookie season, expectations for DeLeon in 1984 were naturally high. Yet the baseball community was anxious to see whether DeLeon was just a flash in the pan.
The Pirates were a different team in 1984; they finished in last place (75-87) in the East Division. With DeLeon posting a 7-13 record, it would appear on the surface that he had a disastrous season himself. But his won-lost record was not the whole story. He flirted with four more no-hitters, including one in which he had a perfect game going into the seventh inning.10 The Pirates lost three of those games. In 16 of his starts, the Pirates scored one run or less while he was in the game. (The Pirates ranked 10th out of 12 NL teams in runs scored for the season.) From July 17 through September 9, DeLeon suffered nine consecutive losing decisions in 11 starts, but only one time did he fail to get past the fifth inning. He finished with a respectable 3.74 ERA and 1.243 WHIP, when the league averages for those stats were 3.60 and 1.323.
DeLeon’s performance was more suspicious in 1985, however. The Pirates were even worse in 1985, winning only 57 games and finishing 43½ games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the division. DeLeon contributed to the Pirates’ miserable season, finishing with one of the worst winning percentages (.095) for a starting pitcher in baseball’s modern era. He won only two of 21 decisions.11 He suffered through two significant losing streaks during the season: seven in a row at the start of the season (April 11 through May 27); and 11 losses to end the season (June 19 through October 4). Again, the Pirates were among the worst NL teams in runs scored. (The Pirates sent DeLeon to Hawaii in July and he was was 4-0 in five starts.)
According to Cardinals catcher Tony Peña, DeLeon’s lack of confidence was a factor in his disastrous season. “It would get to his head. He would say, ‘I’m going to pitch a good game, but I’m going to lose because we don’t score any runs,’” Peña said. “He was pitching as well as he did the other years, but he got too frustrated, too confused. He thought he wasn’t any good.”12
In the offseason Pirates GM Syd Thrift attempted to boost DeLeon’s outlook by giving him a substantial salary raise, from $27,500 to $160,000.13 But still the Pirates demoted DeLeon to Hawaii to start the 1986 season. He went 5-8 in 14 starts and posted a 2.46 ERA in two stints with the Islanders. When he was called up to the Pirates, he was relegated to bullpen duty. After only nine appearances, in which his ERA was over 8.00, the Pirates gave up on DeLeon and traded him to the Chicago White Sox on July 23 for rookie Bobby Bonilla.
DeLeon pitched well for the White Sox in his 13 starts. His won-lost record (4-5) didn’t accurately reflect his performance, as he recorded an impressive 2.96 ERA, and his opponents’ slash line was .179/.296/.285. However, he had little overall impact with the White Sox, who finished in fifth place in the AL West Division.
Chicago was optimistic about DeLeon going into the 1987 season and slotted him in the rotation behind Rich Dotson and Brian Bannister. He logged his most starts (31), innings (206), and wins (11) to that point in his career, but his ERA jumped to 4.02 and he lost 12 games. He finished the season with six wins in seven decisions, as the White Sox ended in fifth place again. DeLeon’s late-season improvement wasn’t enough for the White Sox to retain him.
Over the winter, DeLeon became a target for acquisition by the St. Louis Cardinals, who sought to add depth to their rotation. After several months of trade talks, a deal was consummated in February 1988. The White Sox received pitcher Ricky Horton, outfielder Lance Johnson, and cash in exchange for DeLeon. St. Louis had just come off a pennant-winning season, so the move appeared to be a good one for DeLeon.
It turned out to be a solid year for DeLeon, but the Cardinals’ fortunes took a nosedive in 1988 because of the loss of Jack Clark to free agency and injuries to the pitching staff. Danny Cox, Greg Mathews, and Joe Magrane were unable to put in full seasons, and DeLeon became the workhorse of the staff with team-leading 34 starts and 225⅓ innings pitched. He struck out a career-high 208 batters (third in the NL), the most by a Cardinals pitcher since Bob Gibson’s 208 in 1972. DeLeon led the staff with 13 wins and posted a 3.67 ERA. The Cardinals were never in contention for the division title and finished in fifth place, 25 games behind the division-leading New York Mets.
With his performance in 1988, it seemed that DeLeon was finally shedding the label of hard-luck pitcher, especially accomplishing what he did with a weak Cardinals team. He confirmed in 1989 that his previous season was no fluke. In his first eight games of the season, he posted a 6-2 record and a 2.90 ERA. DeLeon was being called a “certifiable ace.”14 On August 30 he had one of the best outings of career when he yielded only a single to Cincinnati in the fourth inning on his way to facing the minimum 33 batters in 11 shutout innings. He issued no walks and struck out eight in his no-decision game which the Cardinals lost in the 13th inning.
DeLeon and teammate Magrane (18-9, 2.91 ERA) created a formidable one-two punch in the Cardinals rotation. DeLeon posted career highs in wins (16), innings pitched (244⅔), WHIP (1.034), complete games (5), and shutouts (3), while posting a 3.05 ERA. Leading the NL in strikeouts (201), he was only the second Cardinals pitcher to post back-to-back 200-strikeout seasons.15 The third-place finish by the Cardinals was only the second season DeLeon had played on a winning team to that point in his career.
Yet even during this career-best season, DeLeon couldn’t avoid another significant losing streak. In a stretch of seven games from June 13 to July 16, he had six consecutive losing decisions and a 5.91 ERA in only 35 innings pitched. However, he bounced back after that disappointing stint by allowing only 51 hits in 98⅓ innings pitched from July 21 to September 18, as he picked up eight wins and posted a 2.01 ERA.
At the age of 29 it appeared that DeLeon had at last reached the potential envisioned for him as a Pirates rookie in 1983. He was drawing comparisons with Cardinals legend Bob Gibson as a strikeout artist. An article in the October 2, 1989, issue of The Sporting News was headlined “DeLeon Finally Has Arrived.” His success was largely attributed to his “increased use of his fastball to complement his breaking pitches.” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said that when DeLeon would get hit hard, he had a tendency to back off the use of his fastball.16
The Cardinals were so confident of DeLeon’s performance that they signed him to a three-year, $6.5 million contract in January 1990.
But then DeLeon’s career was torpedoed again with a dismal season in 1990. With the Cardinals regressing to a last-place finish in the NL East, DeLeon regressed with them. For the second time in six seasons, DeLeon absorbed 19 losses, the most in the league. His ERA increased by almost 1½ runs, and he lost seven consecutive games twice. He became the first pitcher since Phil Niekro to lead the league in losses twice.17 If there was any consolation for DeLeon, it might be that teammate Magrane lost 17 games.
The Cardinals’ offense didn’t help DeLeon’s confidence much, since they were second to last in the league in runs scored. During his last 17 starts of the 1990 season, the Cardinals scored a total of 36 runs. During that stretch DeLeon lost 14 games, won one, and had two no-decisions.
Before the 1991 season, Cardinals manager Joe Torre reflected on DeLeon’s depressing 1990 season, saying, “DeLeon’s performance paralleled, a little, what I saw when (Steve) Carlton lost 19 games in 1970. He was afraid to throw his fastball. I think pitchers fall into that. When they start losing, they start to become defensive. Plus, with DeLeon, there was the confidence factor.”18
DeLeon’s performance rebounded in 1991, although his record didn’t reflect it. He finished with a 5-9 record in 28 starts, but his 2.71 ERA was the sixth best in the National League. He gave up more than three earned runs in only three of his 28 starts, but he had the third lowest run support (2.8 per 9 innings pitched) among National League starters.19
The 1992 season started out as a shaky one for DeLeon; he was 2-6 record with a 4.28 ERA in 12 starts. He was moved to the bullpen by the Cardinals on June 12. During the balance of his time with the Cardinals through August 27, he made 17 appearances, including three spot starts, and posted a 5.14 ERA. On August 5, in one of those starts against the Phillies, he and the bullpen failed to hold a three-run lead going into the sixth inning. The game was indicative of hard-luck circumstances DeLeon had experienced over the last three seasons when he recorded only eight wins in his last 60 starts.20 The Cardinals released DeLeon on August 31, and he finished out the season with the Philadelphia Phillies who signed him on September 9.
There was some thought that Phillies pitching coach Johnny Podres, a change-up guru, could help DeLeon integrate an effective off-speed pitch into his repertoire.21 However, DeLeon was unable to break into the starting rotation with a regular slot.
DeLeon wound up splitting the 1993 season between the Phillies and the Chicago White Sox, who acquired him for the second time in exchange for Bobby Thigpen on August 10. His primary role with both teams was as a reliever. He posted a respectable 2.98 ERA. In the only postseason experience of his career, DeLeon pitched twice in the American League Championship Series against Toronto, which won the series in six games.
DeLeon played the final two seasons of his career in relief roles with the White Sox and the Montreal Expos, who acquired him in a trade in August 1995 for pitcher Jeff Shaw. DeLeon was 34 years old when he retired.
DeLeon finished his 13-year career with an 86-119 won-lost record. That doesn’t completely define his career. Of his 119 losses, 53 (45 percent) came during seven strings of consecutive losing decisions comprising six or more losses each. He was a victim of playing for losing teams that offered poor run support, while his career ERA was 3.76, with a career ERA+ of 102, indicating he was slightly above average in runs allowed. DeLeon showed flashes of brilliance with numerous no-hit bids and several high-strikeout seasons during his paradoxical career. But his two seasons of league-leading 19 losses overshadowed his high points, resulting in a career largely tainted by a losing reputation.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted the following:
1992 St. Louis Cardinals Media Guide.
1994 Chicago White Sox Media Guide.
1 John Dewan and Don Zminda: The Scouting Report: 1992 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 602.
2 Rick Hummel, “From Prospect to Suspect to Star,” The Sporting News, May 22, 1989: 12.
3 Charles Feeney, “Rookie DeLeon Amazes Bucs,” The Sporting News, August 15, 1983: 14.
8 1986 Pittsburgh Pirates Media Guide, 30.
10 The 1984 games in which DeLeon approached no-hitters were played on May 20, June 20, July 17, and August 24.
11 Only nine major-league pitchers have had a season winning percentage of .100 or lower since 1900 (20 or more starts).
12 James Kaufman and Alan Kaufman: The Worst Baseball Pitchers of All Time (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995), 156.
13 Kaufman and Kaufman, 156.
14 Peter Pascarelli, “Under Trying Circumstances, Reds Holding Up,” The Sporting News, May 15, 1989: 14.
15 1993 Philadelphia Phillies Media Guide, 197.
16 Rick Hummel, “DeLeon Finally Has Arrived,” The Sporting News, October 2, 1989: 16.
17 Seymour Siwoff, Steve Hirdt, Tom Hirdt, and Peter Hirdt, The 1991 Elias Baseball Analyst (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 329.
18 “Coleman Is Seeking Aggressive Pitchers,” The Sporting News, February 4, 1991: 39.
19 Baseball-Reference.com. baseball-reference.com/leagues/NL/1991-starter-pitching.shtml. Retrieved November 21, 2018.
20 “N.L. East: St. Louis Cardinals,” The Sporting News, August 17, 1992: 31.
21 John Dewan and Don Zminda, The Scouting Report: 1993 (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 566.
22 1986 Pittsburgh Pirates Media Guide.
23 1993 Philadelphia Phillies Media Guide.