In “Alone Again, Natura-diddily”, an episode in Season 11 of The Simpsons, following (spoiler alert if you’re sixteen and a half years behind) the sudden death of his wife, milquetoast neighbor character Ned Flanders, when commenting on his virtues if he were to re-enter the dating world, noted, “I’m about as exciting as a baked potato.” Marge Simpson, who is only slightly more adventurous than Ned, replied, “You’re darn right you are! And you’ve got lots of other great qualities too!”
For the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals, Mike Leake is about as exciting as a baked potato. And not even a particularly garnished baked potato at that—one with butter, maybe. Entering Tuesday’s action, Leake ranked 51st among the 79 leaderboard-qualified starting pitchers in Major League Baseball in FanGraphs WAR. Among these 79 starters, Leake is tied for 72nd in strikeout percentage and is 78th in walk percentage. In an era in which Cardinals hurlers garner comparisons to Pedro Martinez (Carlos Martinez, though this is still probably 95% a surname thing) and whatever impossible expectation we are placing upon Alex Reyes or Luke Weaver at the given moment, Mike Leake conjures memories of, say, Mark Buehrle.
Mike Leake is a boring pitcher. He is moderately effective—that he is somewhat below-average among qualified starters does not make him below-average as a whole, as this group skews towards pitchers whose managers have felt confident in them to start throughout at least most of 2016 and towards pitchers who have not suffered major injuries—but he is nobody’s definition of electric.
Meanwhile, the man that Mike Leake is set to replace in the Cardinals rotation tonight, Alex Reyes, is undeniably electric. He was a consensus top-ten prospect in baseball before 2016 and climbed lists throughout the season before his MLB debut on August 9. And his resume, though admittedly not particularly extensive, has been every bit as impressive as could be reasonably hoped.
In 20 MLB innings, Reyes has a 1.35 earned run average, a 2.25 fielding-independent ERA, and a 3.51 xFIP. In his two MLB starts, although he did not earn a decision in either, he did manage a 2.53 ERA, with opponents garnering a mere .205 batting average, .311 on-base percentage, and .263 slugging percentage against him.
The signing of Mike Leake has been a divisive one among Cardinals fans since before the signing was actually finalized. He was practically advertised by the team as being an average pitcher, in sharp contrast to much more exciting free agent starters such as David Price or Zack Greinke. Leake was never promoted as a flashy hot-rod of a pitcher; he was expected to be the equivalent of a Honda Civic, and this has more or less been the case during his Cardinals career. He doesn’t go super fast, but he can hold up over time and be dependable, if not something you’d brag about having to your friends.
While Leake’s ERA is somewhat high, he is having one of the best seasons of his career by most defense-independent measures. His FIP is tied with his 2014 season (the only year in which he finished with more fWAR than he currently has) for the best of his career, and his 3.88 SIERA, a metric which expands upon the basic principles of FIP with extra contextualization of quality of batted ball contact allowed, is better than that of rotation stalwarts Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, and Jaime Garcia.
Ultimately, even if Mike Leake surpasses expectations of some cynical fans (slowly raises hand) for 2016, this does not necessarily justify the five year, $80 million contract with a full no-trade clause he received in December. Recent productive starts from Reyes and Weaver, along with the continuing post-Tommy John rehabilitation of Lance Lynn, call into question the long-term need for Leake. Even if Leake is a perfectly fine pitcher for the remainder of his prime (he will be just under 33 when his current contract ends, so it is not as though the Cardinals are expecting to pay for significant decline years), he is a less valuable asset when the team has a deep list of capable, young, cost-controlled arms in reserve.
But in the short term, none of that matters. Not a word of it. The Cardinals signed Mike Leake to a $80 million contract, and whether this is good or bad, and whether or not he will be worth the cost or not, he is a Cardinals pitcher for that duration. This surely sounds redundant and obvious, but just as the sunk cost of his contract should not guarantee him a starting rotation spot, it should not cause such resentment that his value goes unnoticed.
And when it comes down to it, Alex Reyes has 20 innings at the Major League level. Will he, long-term, be a better pitcher than Mike Leake? He certainly has that potential. And while fear that Reyes could eventually be underutilized in the Cardinals bullpen is fair, this is more of a long-term issue than a short-term one.
Reyes currently stands at 85 1⁄3 innings pitched between Memphis and St. Louis this season; it is hardly an overwhelming amount, but given that he has pitched at two different levels he had not yet experienced, and given that he has only been 22 for a little over a week, it is ideal not to push him too hard. This is particularly the case when considering that Reyes can continue to flourish in a bullpen role for the remainder of 2016—this is a somewhat inane consolation prize to tout when discussing players who should clearly be starting, but at this point, the Cardinals do not know that Reyes should.
Now, Reyes may well be a no-doubt starter very soon, or at least the homer in me wants to believe that, but the Marge in me is more than content with Mike Leake, at whatever his sunk cost, in the rotation. Given the struggles of the bullpen and given general volatility associated with starting rotations, Alex Reyes will get his opportunities, and I am excited to see them, but the fairly boring, innings-eating type of reliability of Mike Leake is a valuable asset in the Cardinals rotation.