Since the start of the 2012 season (Mike Matheny's first year as manager), the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff has recorded the second lowest earned run average (tied with the Washington Nationals and behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers) in all of baseball at 3.39. And while the offense tends to be significantly underrated by many, it is undeniable that the key to the Cardinals' continued success has largely been the team's consistently effective pitching staff, from the starters to the middle relievers to the closers. If the Cardinals want to claim the National League Central crown once again in 2016, the pitching staff will once again be asked to the lead the way.
Barring injury (a very important qualifier to consider), the opening day starting rotation projects to be Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, Mike Leake, and Carlos Martinez, in that order. With Lance Lynn out for the season, Martinez is probably the number two starter in terms of quality and potential, but I listed him at number five here largely due to the fact that the Cardinals have been extremely cautious with the 24-year-old's road back from a shoulder strain late last season.
Unfortunately, the only pitcher in the projected rotation without a decorated injury history is the newcomer, Leake, who signed with the Cardinals for five years, $80 million over the offseason. Per Leake's Baseball Prospectus player card, Leake has missed time for three injuries in his career, with the only arm related one being classified as "shoulder fatigue" way back in August-September 2010.
Leake has thrown at least 165 innings in each of the last five seasons. As always, there is inherent value in being an "innings eater," but at the same time, the Cardinals do not seem like an organization willing to shell out $80 million to a pitcher who provides value solely on the fact of being healthy enough to be on the mound, even in a time of relative need given Lynn's injury.
2016 ZiPS Projection
I have long believed that there is a performance ceiling associated with pitchers reliant on weak contact/ground balls, and if Leake's career is any indication, there just may be some truth to that notion. Inducing weak contact is preferred to strong contact, of course, but eliminating contact altogether is the only method to truly ensure success. Yet, since 2010, only five pitchers (with at least 1,000 innings pitched) have recorded a lower strikeout per nine innings ratio than Leake at 6.04.
Thus, if Leake wants to break through this "performance ceiling" I speak of, the solution is pretty simple: he needs to strike out more hitters. That sounds easy enough, but does he have what it takes to actually do that? Before answering this question, let's first take a look at his 2015 repertoire.
2015 PitchF/x Basics (via BrooksBaseball.net)
Remember: Regarding horizontal movement in right-handed pitchers, a negative value means arm-side movement, whereas a positive value means glove-side movement.
|Pitch||Frequency||Velocity (MPH)||Dragless Horiz. Movement (in.)|
Upon further review, yes, Leake does possess the ability to strike out more hitters. Will he blow anyone away? At 90-92 MPH on his sinker, probably not. Despite his two most frequented pitches being contact-oriented (sinker, cutter), his repertoire is complex enough to induce strikeouts. With zero intentions of sounding homerish, I sincerely look forward to the cooperative effort of Leake, eight-time Gold Glover Yadier Molina, and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist.
As I have written in the past, I think we undervalue the importance of pitch sequencing. Given the noticeable differences in velocity and horizontal movement, Leake's repertoire is a pitch sequencing craftsman's dream. The next step is to turn that ability into reality, and Leake has the perfect battery mate to help do this. Now, will Leake go out there and strike out nine hitters per nine innings this season? No, but any uptick from his career average will be a step in the right direction and will play a vital role in Leake performing as a crucial contributor to the Cardinals' success.
Spring Training Statistics (for what they're worth)