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Mike Leake’s Cy Young candidacy

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Those were five words I never expected to be typing with any sincerity, but the Cardinals pitcher was among the NL’s best in April.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

So let me be very clear about something, first and foremost—Mike Leake is probably not going to win the 2017 National League Cy Young Award.

Let me be even more clear about the same thing, with specific emphasis added: Mike Leake is probably not going to win it. And while the twenty-nine year-old soft-tossing righty would be a wildly improbable candidate for the award—many of us, myself included, mocked the Baseball Prospectus prediction (or at least the prediction produced by its PECOTA system) that Leake would merely be the best pitcher on the St. Louis Cardinals—his April, continued over the course of the next five months, would absolutely merit strong consideration for recognition as the league’s best pitcher.

Through April, the Cardinals’ #4 starter had the best earned-run average in the NL, at 1.35. Following a 2016 season in which Mike Leake, typically a worse pitcher by his peripherals than by his ERA, had a career-worst ERA (4.69) while also sporting a career-best 3.83 fielding-independent ERA, it has been refreshing to see him, once again, proving himself to be a FIP-beater...but not by much. Leake is also rocking a 1.95 FIP, unsurprisingly the best mark of his career, and second in the league only to Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets.

But Syndergaard left his April 30 start in the second inning with an injury. Clayton Kershaw, whose statistics are slightly worse than Leake’s so far in 2017 but are considerably better in every other year, is dealing with a calf injury, and missed considerable time in 2016 which derailed a Cy Young campaign which easily could have been an MVP campaign had he stayed healthier. Ivan Nova, second to Leake by ERA in April, has been a worse, less consistent pitcher throughout his career, and is also a few months older (neither is old, but as much of a reach as “Leake is finally reaching his promise” is, “Nova is finally reaching his” is even more of one).

Other pitchers who have been better throughout their careers, such as Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner, were slightly worse in April than Mike Leake. They may eventually pass Leake in the NL Cy Young pecking order, but it has not happened yet. At this point, Mike Leake is the leader in the clubhouse, and this is a very advantageous spot from which to continue his candidacy.

While predicting that Leake, going forward, is going to be a sub-2 ERA/FIP type of pitcher (in other words, “is going to be Clayton Kershaw”) is a bit overly optimistic, one good sign for his future is that, in April, Leake was not a dramatically different type of pitcher than he has been in the past. He has gone about getting results in a similar way, but with incremental improvements in different facets of run, hit, and walk prevention.

Leake’s 6.75 strikeouts per nine innings and 1.35 walks per nine innings are improvements from 2016—this would mark his second-best overall strikeout season and his best season by walks allowed—but neither is especially unsustainable. In 2016, Leake’s K/9 was 6.37 and his BB/9 was 1.53.

These went along with the prevailing themes of Leake’s career, that he was not a power pitcher but that he succeeded at pitching to contact and not allowing many free runners via the walk. True to form, his ground ball rate has been a solid 55%, but while this surpasses his career mark of 50.9%, it is only a touch lower than the 53.7% ground ball rate which Leake had in 2016, which was his career high.

While Leake suffered in 2016 due to his lack of defensive support, particularly in the infield, the Cardinals have fielded better defensive infields in his starts in 2017 than they had in 2016, so the tendency for batters to put balls in play have not hurt him so much. His opponent BABIP of .277 is slightly below-average, and slightly below his career norms, it is not radically so. Additionally, his line-drive percentage has declined to a career-low level. Sustainability aside, Mike Leake has simply been a better pitcher in April 2017 than he has been over the course of a season so far in his professional career.

That said, there have been some probably unsustainable bits of luck in Leake’s first month. Mike Leake, notably, has not allowed a home run, when in previous seasons, he, um, did allow home runs. Additionally, his rate of runners left on base is 84.9%—of the 594 qualified seasons in Major League Baseball this decade, only 2015 Zack Greinke topped this rate (86.5%), with 2016 Jon Lester equaling it. Leake’s career high LOB% was 77.7%, in 2013 with the Cincinnati Reds.

And yet, while Leake probably won’t keep up April for five more months, the results of his April do count. Say, hypothetically, that his promising April start was a sign that Leake has improved as a pitcher, but not that he is a 1.35 ERA pitcher, but rather that Leake’s true talent is closer to his current xFIP, a fielding-independent metric which adjusts for a league-average home run to fly ball rate (thereby mitigating his impossible 0% home run rate), which is 3.15.

This does not mean that Mike Leake would finish 2017 with a 3.15 ERA—it would mean that he would finish the final 5/6 of his season with a 3.15 ERA. On top of his 1.35 ERA in the first 1/6, this would leave Mike Leake with a 2.85 ERA. Only six qualified pitchers had better ERAs than this in 2016—neither Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer nor Rick Porcello, were among the half-dozen.

And speaking of Rick Porcello—the year before he won the Cy Young Award? He had a 4.92 ERA, 4.13 FIP, and 3.72 xFIP. Last year, Leake had a 4.69 ERA, 3.83 FIP, and 3.76 xFIP. Leake had a similar type of season—a poor ERA, more favorable though not jaw-dropping peripherals. But Mike Leake was also better. Stranger things have happened than Mike Leake winning a Cy Young Award—a stranger thing than Mike Leake winning a Cy Young Award happened last year. So while I’m not willing to predict it, I am going to, with a healthy dose of skepticism, monitor it.