When the Cardinals inked Mike Leake to then the fourth largest contract in franchise history, expectations for him were clearly outlined: eat innings, provide stability to the rotation every fifth day, justify your salary by joining our swath of 2-3 win players. Nobody was expecting Leake to be a frontline starter. Rather, he was getting paid to serve as a guiding hand for a team that had just lost Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery, watched John Lackey join the rival Cubs, and fallen short in the David Price sweepstakes.
But I digress, the point of today's article isn't to debate the merits–or lack thereof, depending on your perspective–of Leake's contract, a topic I'm sure you've heard plenty about since December of 2015. We're here to discuss Leake's pitching, not his wallet. As much as his 2016 season may have seemed disappointing on the surface, the peripherals behind his baseball card stats revealed a performance that was just as advertised. According to FanGraphs, last year was Leake's most valuable despite a bout with the shingles that landed him on the disabled list and dragged his innings total down to 176.2.
Along came 2017, when Leake shot out of the gates and pitched like a Cy Young candidate for the first 6-8 weeks of the season. The wonder run culminated in his eight inning start against the Dodgers on May 24th, his best outing of the year going by FanGraphs' Game Score metric.
Mike Leake 2017 Overview
|Metric||Before May 25th||After May 25th|
|Metric||Before May 25th||After May 25th|
One thing you should immediately notice is that Leake's highs have been just as exaggerated as his lows. That said, Leake has been legitimately, tangibly worse since his aforementioned gem in Los Angeles. His walk rate has climbed, his strikeout rate has dropped, and opposing hitters are making stronger contact. For a pitcher like Leake who survives on inducing weak contact, his increased barrel and solid contact rates prompt a red flag that waves more frantically for Leake than the typical pitcher.
To begin, I examined Leake's five primary pitches one-by-one: the sinker, cutter, changeup, slider, and knuckle curve.
Mike Leake Pitch Breakdown (xwOBA-wOBA)
|Before May 25th||0.379-0.365||0.238-0.148||0.244-0.202||0.147-0.172||0.209-0.139|
|After May 25th||0.362-0.392||0.294-0.302||0.367-0.340||0.254-0.257||0.416-0.546|
The sinker–with a usage rate eclipsing 40% (see what I did there?)–has actually been a more effective pitch during Leake's recent slump regarding contact quality (i.e. xwOBA). Compare that to the other four pitches listed in the table–which in totality are used a shade above 50% of the time (okay, I'm done with the eclipse puns now)–that have all experienced a spike in both expected and actual wOBA. Clearly Leake's secondary pitches are the prime suspect, if not the real culprit.
For the most part, Leake has maintained command of his sinker past the first two months of the season.
However, as you will see in just a moment, he has encountered two issues with his other pitches.
- Leake has let those pitches stray up in the strike zone, a dangerous place for a groundball pitcher to roam.
- Leake has let those pitches stray well out of the strike zone altogether, transforming would-be groundouts into easy takes for a ball.
Illustrating these two principles perfectly are Leake's cutter against lefties and righties, respectively.
A pitch that once generated strikes by working inside to left-handed opponents and away from right-handers has become a liability both in and out of the zone. Generally speaking, only power pitchers should venture to challenge hitters further up. Also note that while Leake's pitch core (colored black and dark red) against lefties has shot higher, the radius surrounding that core (lighter red and orange) has crept over the heart of the plate. Likewise, Leake has begun missing his spot against righties either in the middle of the plate or by tailing his cutter too far away to bait the batter into swinging. (Sure enough, both the cutter's swing and whiff rates against righties have dropped lately.)
What about some of Leake's other secondary pitches?
Has it felt like more and more of Leake's offspeed pitches and breaking balls are being hammered for extra-base hits? You're not alone. The two images above prove that, indeed, Leake has been serving up more proverbial meatballs since May 25th. With both the knuckle curve and changeup, the core and/or other primary locations have drifted closer to the vaunted middle-middle that pitchers–especially finesse groundballers with weaker stuff–dread.
If Mike Leake is going to escape his recent struggles, he will need to overcome his greatest enemy: himself.