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An early evaluation of the Mike Leake contract

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The signing of Mike Leake was controversial among fans at the time. After two months, how has his contract looked for the Cardinals?

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 St. Louis Cardinals have played exactly one-third of their season, and the contract of the club's marquee free agent signing of last offseason, starting pitcher Mike Leake, has yet to reach the 7% mark of its duration.

The first two months of Leake's Cardinals tenure featured some ups and downs and were, by and large, an exercise in confirmation bias. Those who disliked the signing, viewing the contract as an emotional overpay for an average pitcher in hopes to assuage fan concerns about the recent departures of Jason Heyward and John Lackey, saw Leake's early struggles as evidence that the Cardinals would come to regret the acquisition. Those who viewed the move as a savvy acquisition of a dependable veteran who adds stability to a previously volatile young pitching staff could look at Leake's later results as evidence that, indeed, the Cardinals had wisely invested in a high-floor pitcher.

Through his first eleven starts of 2016, Mike Leake has been, on balance, fine. It's a decidedly unexciting assessment for somebody slated to make $80 million through 2020, but Leake is, for better or worse, a fairly unexciting pitcher. But that was the major selling point of the signing: while Leake lacked the high-end potential of David Price or Zack Greinke, he was to lack the bust potential of, say, Rich Hill or Tim Lincecum.

Leake's 2016 stats have followed a similar pattern to his recent history: he sports a slightly above-average earned-run average (through his extremely prototypical start on May 31, it stands at 3.82) and he has a worse fielding-independent ERA than his traditional ERA would suggest (his current FIP is 4.58). In five of Leake's six MLB seasons, his ERA has been lower than his FIP (in 2012, his FIP was lower by a mere 0.16 runs per game.

Although the first instinct of fans is often to cite pitchers with disproportionately low ERAs as candidates for regression (and often, this instinct is correct), Leake may be an exception to this rule. If his results with skill-interactive ERA (SIERA, a statistic in the same mold as FIP but which adds emphasis to the quality of contact pitchers induce rather than simply examining his strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed) are any indication, he is an exception to it. Here are Mike Leake's numbers by MLB season.

Year ERA FIP SIERA
2010 4.23 4.68 4.31
2011 3.86 4.22 3.75
2012 4.58 4.42 4.08
2013 3.37 4.04 4.10
2014 3.70 3.88 3.51
2015 3.70 4.20 4.19
2016 3.82 4.58 4.24

Now, to be clear, Leake's SIERA throughout the years hardly makes him look like an ace. But his career SIERA of 3.98 does suggest that Leake can suppress runs better than his pedestrian strikeout rates (through Tuesday's start, Leake's K/9 of 5.53 has been doubled by two qualified MLB starters, Jose Fernandez and Noah Syndergaard) would imply.

This is all a long way to explain why I, more or less, trust Mike Leake's earned run average. It would certainly be more exciting for Cardinals fans if Leake's trusty ERA were, say, Clayton Kershaw's or Jake Arrieta's, but such a player also would have been considerably more expensive than $80 million over five years on the free agent market.

For a couple of reasons, it is often difficult to fully grasp that $80 million over five years could be dismissed as not that much of a commitment. Mike Leake probably makes more money per inning pitched than you do per year. The idea of this as pocket change on any scale seems implausible, but in the world of free agency, it is all relative.

Before the 2000-2001 offseason, no player in MLB history earned as much per season as Mike Leake now makes. But over the last fifteen-plus seasons, the economic state of baseball has changed dramatically. Here is a look at the top free agents from the last offseason, including Leake, and how the signings have performed by Fangraphs and Baseball Reference WAR through Wednesday.

Free Agent Team/Contract 2016 fWAR 2016 bWAR Opening Day age
David Price Boston Red Sox: 7 years, $217 million 1.5 0.0 30
Zack Greinke Arizona Diamondbacks: 6 years, $206.5 million 1.2 0.3 32
Johnny Cueto San Francisco Giants: 6 years, $130 million 2.5 2.4 30
Jordan Zimmermann Detroit Tigers: 5 years, $110 million 1.3 2.0 29
Jeff Samardzija San Francisco Giants: 5 years, $90 million 1.8 1.6 31
Mike Leake St. Louis Cardinals: 5 years, $80 million 0.3 0.6 28
Wei-Yin Chen Miami Marlins: 5 years, $80 million 0.7 0.2 30
Ian Kennedy Kansas City Royals: 5 years, $70 million 0.6 1.4 31
Scott Kazmir Los Angeles Dodgers: 3 years, $48 million 0.3 0.1 32
John Lackey Chicago Cubs: 2 years, $32 million 1.4 1.1 37
Yovani Gallardo Texas Rangers: 2 years, $22 million 0.2 -0.2 30

Using an average of bWAR and fWAR, a semi-arbitrary but fair metric if one truly believes that the two replacement level measures should be regarded equally, Mike Leake has been as productive as Wei-Yin Chen and has been more productive than Scott Kazmir and Yovani Gallardo. This is roughly where a glance at the average annual values of the contracts suggest he should be: only Ian Kennedy makes (slightly) more (and he had an attached draft compensation pick) while providing more value.

But a key number in evaluating Mike Leake beyond his WAR, his ERA, or his FIP is something far more elemental: his age. Leake is nearly a year and a half the junior of Jordan Zimmermann, the next youngest of the top-tier of available starting pitching talent.

While Leake will make the same average annual salary as Scott Kazmir and John Lackey, his somewhat pedestrian start to 2016 should be somewhat less disconcerting considering his age. Particularly with regard to Lackey, who may be 39 by the time his time as a Chicago Cub comes to an end (his 39th birthday is on October 23, 2017, so Cubs fans certainly hope he will still be pitching at the time), there is a serious chance, even over two years, for severe aging-related regression, so he had better get ahead of the curve immediately.

Of course, Lackey has. And Leake hasn't. But because Leake will be just 32 at the end of the 2020 season, it is not unreasonable to expect him to maintain, or even moderately improve, his skill set. The latter seems a bit optimistic, and not likely enough to justify an eighty million dollar investment in and of itself, but it might be a worthwhile risk if the team can depend on, in the worst case scenario, Mike Leake being an average pitcher.  And while $16 million for an average pitcher in 2016 is borderline, if revenues continue to grow, it should be a relative bargain by 2020.

Ideally, Mike Leake will continue to improve upon his recent successes: a 1.59 ERA in his last five starts is a nice touch. But to draw too adamant of a conclusion from these five starts would be as naive as reaching firm conclusions from his initial struggles. Both should be considered and based on his overall body of work in 2016, the signing of Mike Leake is far from a certain bust nor boon. And while everybody likes simple conclusions, it may be several years before Cardinals fans can know for sure whether the Mike Leake contract was a smart one.