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Deciphering Mike Leake’s downturn

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After a stellar first six weeks of the season, Mike Leake’s performance took a nosedive. Homers and walks are up while the infield defense is average at best, none of which are great circumstances for a sinker ball pitcher.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Mike Leake is not lucky; he ended up on the DL last year with shingles. I wasn’t even alive the last time a major league player ended up on the disabled list with shingles! (It was Charles Nagy during spring training of 1993.) After an unbelievable beginning to this season which saw him besting even Clayton Kershaw’s ERA, Mike Leake came crashing down and has not won a game since July 24th. He lost four of his last five games and gave up fourteen earned runs in his last two outings. So what happened? Last week, Tyler Kinzy took a look at Mike Leake’s falloff and attributed much of it to a lack of feel for secondary pitches. I want to dive into a few broader factors also contributing to this crash landing.

Back in May my BtBS colleague Evan Davis wrote that “Mike Leake is going to come back down to earth.” I told him to stop crushing my dreams, but three months later I must admit he was right. My hopes for Cy Young award winner Mike Leake have crumbled alongside the Cardinals’ chances of winning the division. (“It can still happen!” I shout at the sky.) Evan noted three factors contributing to Leake’s insanely good pitching performance, but his performance in these key areas has since bottomed out.

Homers Not Allowed

Mike Leake was not giving up home runs early on. When Evan wrote that piece, Leake had given up four home runs in 53.1 innings. Since then, he has allowed twelve home runs in 93.2 innings. Leake went from allowing one homer every 13.1 innings to one about every 7.2 innings. He essentially doubled his home run rate.

Somehow, though, his overall rate of home runs allowed is the same as it was in 2016. Last year he allowed 1.02/9 and this year it is 0.98/9. However, in mid-May that number was down to 0.68! He did not give up many earlier this season and is making up for it now. Busch Stadium is not homer-friendly, yet twelve of the sixteen home runs Leake allowed this season occurred in St. Louis. He also tends to allow home runs in bunches: two on Saturday, two against Arizona last month; three against Miami on July 5th; two in Chicago; two against the Dodgers, etc.

Walks Not Allowed

“Leake has always been a ground ball specialist, thanks to the sinker he throws nearly half the time. He matches it by not giving up any walks. [Neither skill has changed], thanks to a 53.1 percent grounder rate and a 4.7 percent walk rate. His control and his pitch-to-contact abilities remain in place.”

Since Evan wrote that piece Leake’s groundball rate has actually bumped up a bit to 55.2 percent. You know what else has jumped up? The walks. Yes, the dreaded BB. It was 4.7 percent but it is now 5.6 percent. Still, not a heck of a lot of walks but enough to maybe make a difference in close games. Walks can also make what would have been a solo homer into a two-run homer.

Normally walks would not affect Leake quite so much because he is a sinker ball pitcher. His grounder rate has ticked up and ground balls lead to double-plays … unless you have the Cardinals’ infield.

Above-Average Infield Defense

The Cardinals infield is like an episode of DeJong and DeRestless: something will go wrong, you just don’t know what. Whether Matt Carpenter’s foot is not on the bag or DeJong fumbles the ball or Greg Garcia can’t make the play on a bunt, they do not always get the job done behind Mike Leake and his stats are paying the price.

As of May 18th, the Cardinals defense was the 6th-best in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus’s “Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.” Now, they have dropped all the way down to 13th. Fangraphs’ defensive rating ranks them about the same, placing them at 14th overall. Much of that decline likely results from the merry-go-round of infield changes the Cardinals have seen this season. To put it in perspective, the Cardinals designated Jhonny Peralta for assignment and demoted Aledmys Diaz and that resulted in their defense getting worse.

Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) weighs all hitting events, including strikeouts and walks, then includes a batted ball’s exit velocity and launch angle to determine what a pitcher should have given up. Leake had a .295 xwOBA on May 18th, but his raw wOBA against was .262. That disparity means the defense previously bailed him out on a lot of contact, but that’s not happening now. His xwOBA is .326 and his wOBA is .328. Now he’s performing “as expected” and ground balls keep sneaking through the infield. But it is apparent that Mike Leake’s performances live and die by the infield defense. They just aren’t as good as they were earlier and Mike Leake is inducing even more ground balls. Not a great combo.

The Cardinals’ offense hasn’t been great for Leake either. Mike Leake has made seventeen starts since Evan wrote that article. In eight of those starts, nearly half, the Cardinals scored three or fewer runs. There are a couple painful one-run losses tossed in for good measure.

I like Mike Leake. I like his shaggy hair and quiet disposition. I also agree with Tyler Kinzy’s conclusion that Leake’s biggest enemy right now is himself and highly recommend you check out his piece, especially the conclusions about Leake’s curveball and changeup. More homers, more walks, and bad defense all account for part of Leake’s downturn. However, his overall production mirrors his 2016 numbers so it’s more the stark contrast between his amazing first couple months and the dismal three proceeding it making his recent slump appear even worse.

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Audrey Stark is a contributor at Viva El Birdos. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.