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Re-reevaluating the Mike Leake contract

Mike Leake’s five-year free agent contract is roughly 30% over. How does it stack up to this point?

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

A little over two months ago, I wrote a post here on Viva El Birdos about St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Mike Leake and his candidacy for the National League Cy Young Award. There’s a reason I wrote the post on May 3 rather than waiting a month or two for his case for the award to truly solidify.

The notion that Mike Leake, a prototypical back-of-the-rotation starter if ever there were one, was a serious candidate for the Cy Young Award was always a bit ludicrous. The underlying argument of my post was that Rick Porcello winning the 2016 American League Cy Young Award was inherently ridiculous, which it was, so why not consider the possibility of Leake?

The answer, of course, is that Rick Porcello was an extreme long shot. Sure, a pitcher such as Mike Leake, no more than a standard deviation or so away from league average at any given time, has some chance at winning such an accolade, as did Porcello, but is it really statistically likely enough to get excited about? Well, sure it is, because getting excited about a player coming out of nowhere to emerge as capital-E Elite is fun, even if it is extraordinarily unlikely. Assuming this is a fan thing and not a front office thing, at least.

After an April in which Mike Leake pitched as well as anybody in the National League, he has come back down to Earth. In May and June, the Cardinals’ fourth starter (this designation is based on Leake’s turn in the rotation from the beginning of the season onward, though it also reflects the general apathy that most people have towards the man) had a 3.72 ERA, a 4.33 fielding-independent ERA, and a 3.94 xFIP. Some of these numbers look better than others, of course, but generally, it’s hard to get too excited or too dejected about any of them.

The mediocrity of these numbers is oddly overwhelming. The league average in all three of these metrics is 4.35 (important note: FIP and xFIP are retro-fit to work around league-average ERA numbers, so this isn’t just a supreme coincidence), which puts Leake above-average by ERA and xFIP and ever-so-slightly, immaterially above-average by FIP. But these are boring numbers, even if they are also above-average numbers.

Even on a season-long basis, Mike Leake’s defense-independent pitching statistics aren’t spectacular. While his 2.97 ERA is the best among Cardinals starting pitchers this season and ranks eighth among Major League Baseball’s seventy-four qualified pitchers, his 3.63 FIP is less extraordinary, ranking 19th, while his 3.77 xFIP also ranks 19th. By SIERA, a more intricate defense-independent stat which gives increased consideration to quality of contact surrendered, Leake ranks 24th.

The counter-argument to Leake’s regression is a pretty simple one—he’s still above-average. Even by SIERA, his worst of the aforementioned metrics, Mike Leake was in the top third of qualified starting pitchers (this group, it is worth noting, is a self-selected group which includes pitchers mostly demonstrating enough pitching acumen to justify a role in a big-league rotation, or at least a track record of doing so).

Since joining the Cardinals before the 2016 season, Leake is tied for 37th with teammate Adam Wainwright and Yankees hurler Michael Pineda with 4.5 fWAR. Twelve pitchers surpassed 4.5 fWAR in 2016 alone, and Chris Sale has already surpassed it in 2017. But by FanGraphs’s measurement, since inking a five-year, $80 million contract, Mike Leake has been worth $36.1 million.

In general, free agents are expected to provide value in excess of their salary earlier in their contracts and that this surplus will probably disappear in the later years of the contract, thanks to the dreaded aging curve. But in Leake’s case, he was less dependent on early surplus because he signed the contract at a relatively young age (he had just turned 28) and because he was less dependent on velocity than most (in 2015, Leake threw a conventional fastball just 0.2% of the time, and while he did throw a cutter, his most commonly utilized pitch was the movement-dependent sinker). Of course, being better more often is always going to be a good thing, and Leake’s early returns will help soften the blow if he is eventually injured or ineffective.

In a vacuum, Mike Leake’s contract has been a good one. Through roughly 30% of it, by FanGraphs’s measure, he has produced over 45% of its expected value. There are other considerations, tangible and intangible, to consider, but he has been a good, if not great, and productive pitcher for the Cardinals, and there has consistently been a role for him with the team—particularly after Lance Lynn and Alex Reyes missed entire seasons while others suffered more minor injuries, metronomes like Leake had increased value.

But Leake’s contract looks even better relative to his free agency peers. Much has been made of the overwhelming success of Max Scherzer since signing with the Washington Nationals (my mind’s eye seems to remember fans preferring Jon Lester as a potential Cardinal, but this is purely non-scientific), but many other free agent targets over the last several years have floundered. Here’s how some of the other major free agent pitchers of Leake’s free agent off-season have fared so far in their new contracts.

  • Wei-Yin Chen, Miami Marlins: Five years, $80 million, 1.1 fWAR, 30% of contract completed, 11.6% of contract value earned
  • Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants: Six years, $130 million (with player opt-out after 2/$46M), 6.3 fWAR, 25% of contract completed, 38.5% of contract value earned (on the opt-out scale, Cueto has earned 109% of his value with half a season left)
  • Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks: Six years, $206.5 million, 5 fWAR, 25% of contract completed, 19.4% of contract value earned
  • John Lackey, Chicago Cubs: Two years, $32 million, 2.8 fWAR, 75% of contract completed, 69% of contract value earned
  • David Price, Boston Red Sox: Seven years, $217 million (with player opt-out after 3/$90M), 5.1 fWAR, 21.4% of contract completed, 18.8% of contract value earned (on the opt-out scale, Price has earned 45.3% of his salary at the midpoint of the term)
  • Jeff Samardzija, San Francisco Giants: Five years, $90 million, 4.9 fWAR, 30% of contract completed, 43.6% of contract value earned
  • Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit Tigers: Five years, $110 million, 1.3 fWAR, 30% of contract completed, 9.2% of contract value earned

Of the seven big names listed above, only Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija have been worth the money, and there were non-performance reasons that the Cardinals were never realistically going to target Cueto (I personally wouldn’t have minded it, but I have accepted that I am a soulless droid).

Greinke has regained his ace-caliber form, but a so-so 2016 (combined with one of the most shockingly large free agent contracts baseball has ever seen) puts him currently behind the pace to be worth the contract (given his age and the length of the contract, he in particular should be accumulating surplus value). Meanwhile, Price pitched well in 2016 but fell behind in 2017 due to injury, while Lackey and Zimmermann have been nothing short of awful this season. And Chen, who signed a similar contract to Leake, has been underwhelming throughout.

Mike Leake has been one of the best bargains from his free agent class because he continues to be a boring pitcher—while his highs are rarely all that high, his lows are tenable. And there is reason to believe that when far higher upside pitchers such as Alex Reyes join Carlos Martinez at the top of the Cardinals rotation, Leake will be a steady back-end starter whose ability to go deep in most games will conserve the bullpen and allow more exciting players to be even more successful.