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What has been different in the last three starts by Mike Leake?

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Arizona Diamondbacks v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

After a difficult start to the 2016 season, Mike Leake has strung together three straight quality starts for the St. Louis Cardinals -- allowing a total three earned runs over 21 innings pitched. As you'd expect, Leake did not strike out hitters many hitters (4.71 K/9) during this span, but he limited his walks (1.29 BB/9) and did a better job than previous starts at keeping the ball in the park (one home run allowed versus six allowed in his first six starts).

As you may recall, I wrote with conservative optimism about Leake's quality start on May 10th against the Los Angeles Angels (8.0 IP, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K). As we all already know, one start is an extremely small sample size, so small that very few concrete conclusions can be drawn from it, hence the expressed conservatism. Further, after pulling PitchF/x data from BrooksBaseball.net (as usual), I was able to propose the possibility that Leake enjoyed good results against the Angels despite executing a "meh" process ("meh" meaning he did not necessarily locate his pitches any better than previous starts).

Well, Leake is now up to three quality starts in a row, and after Saturday's seven-inning outing against the Arizona Diamondbacks, fellow Viva El Birdos staff member Alex Crisafulli asked (or demanded?) me to write about Leake yet again to see what we can make, if anything, from his recent, small-sample-sized success.

First-Pitch Strikes

First 6 Starts Last 3 Starts
59.61% 69.16%

An increase of roughly 10 percentage points is significant. A good way to illustrate the magnitude of difference is a season rate of 69.16% would put Leake third among all MLB starting pitchers (behind only Johnny Cueto and Kyle Hendricks) as opposed to 69th when possessing a rate of 59.61%. Why is throwing a first-pitch strike so important? Look no further than Leake's career numbers after an 1-0 count versus after an 0-1 count:

Split PA AVG OBP SLG
After 1-0 1897 .268 .347 .426
After 0-1 2230 .239 .277 .375

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, Leake has not (and almost certainly will not) strike out hitters too frequently. He simply does not miss enough bats, and as he has consistently said in the past, his goal is to "make good pitches and get bad contact." A first-pitch strike is one of the best pitches a pitcher can throw and is a direct step toward inducing bad contact as the hitter finds himself immediately behind in the count. Overpowering, strikeout pitchers can work around a first-pitch ball, and frankly, so can an on-the-ground contact pitcher like Leake, but situationally, it is more preferably for a pitcher like Leake to start ahead in the count.

Location: Sinker Versus Lefties

One of the keys to bad contact versus left-handed hitters is avoiding the middle (duh) and generally avoiding the zone down-and-in as most lefties (not named Bryce Harper...yet) feast on pitches in this zone. As you can see in the heatmap on the right, Leake did not throw a single middle-middle sinker over his last three starts. Sure, he may have only thrown four in his first six starts, but it's an ever dangerous location as just one pitch can lead to a considerable amount of damage.

Staying away with his armside-tailing sinker appears to be Leake's current plan of attack and until opposing hitters start picking up on it, there really is no need to change his approach. That being said, when hitters do begin to adjust, Leake's sinker does have enough horizontal movement to be an effective (though occasional) front-door pitch to lefties (front-door meaning the pitch looks like it is going to hit the batter out of the hand only to tail over the inside corner of the plate; think of prime Chris Carpenter here).

Location: Cutter Versus Lefties

In all honesty, when I see a heatmap like the one on the right (Leake's last three starts), I usually jump to the conclusion that the pitcher is having trouble commanding the pitch in question. As I will repeat, though, our sample size is not big enough to draw such a definite conclusion. Thus, if anything, it appears Leake is elevating his cutter versus lefties more frequently (and staying on the inside of the plate as he always has). Generally, I would recommend against elevating a ~90 MPH pitch, but when Leake can sequence the pitch with a down-and-away sinker, it can be an effective weapon for him -- especially considering the already-mentioned notion that lefties enjoy pitches down and in.

Location: Sinker Versus Righties

Leake RHH Sinker

Surprisingly, Leake's sinker landed in the bottom two rows more frequently in his first six starts (60%) than it did in his last three starts (55.81%). However, there are (at least) two components to every pitch location, and as you can see, Leake has hit the outside part of the bottom two rows (boxed in yellow) more frequently in his last three starts (37.9% versus 25.45%). Thus, after looking at his location versus both lefties and righties, it appears Leake's approach with his sinker is to live down and away -- tailing out of the strike zone against lefties and backing up into the strike zone against righties.

Location: Cutter versus Righties

By now, you should be able to pick up on the potential makings of a trend (I word it this way for a reason). The same area I boxed in yellow for Leake's sinker versus righties (down and away) should be the exact target he shoots for each time he throws the cutter. Similar to the sinker versus lefties, and down and away cutter to righties often leads to weak, end-of-the-bat contact. Weak, end-of-the-bat contact often results in ground balls -- or Leake's goal as a pitcher.

Bottom Line

With time, Major League hitters will make the proper adjustments in order to to sit back on these pitches down and away (and spray them the other way), but until then, I fully expect Leake to continue attacking these areas with regularity. Considering his repertoire, Leake won't be able to stray too much from the down-and-away approach, but he will still have to keep hitters honest through various pitch-sequencing techniques.

In a sentence, what has been different for Leake over his last three quality starts, you ask? While there has not necessarily been a significant difference in the vertical location of his pitches, Leake has definitely done a solid job at optimizing his pitches' horizontal location (read: away, away, away instead of middle, middle, middle), coupled with an increased frequency of first-pitch strikes.

So far, so good for the $80-million man.