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The emergence of strikeouts for Mike Leake

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It's Mike Leake's world -- we just live in it.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Prior to the start of the season, I did my best to come up with a scenario in which a historically average Mike Leake could be viewed as a crucial contributor for the St. Louis Cardinals. I must note that I wanted Leake's value to extend beyond mere "innings eater" status, and in the end, I concluded that in order for this to happen, the 28-year-old right-hander needed to strike out hitters more frequently. Well, over the last week and a half (two starts per pitcher), Leake has been, without a doubt, the most effective starting pitcher on the Cardinals. Sure, both starts have come against inferior opponents in the Padres and the Brewers, but the rest of his rotation mates pitched against the same teams as well.

So what has been different for Leake? Because before his last two starts, he appeared to be on pace for a 2 to 2.5 fWAR season, which, while valuable, would be relatively underwhelming given Leake's contract and the hype expressed by the Cardinals' front office after the signing. Two days ago, in an article by Derrick Goold on STLToday.com, we learned that Leake is "trying to attack, trying to get a few more strikeouts," and just as I suggested prior to the season and as you will see in the table below, this approach is definitely helping his overall performance.

Statistics from last two starts

Date Opponent IP H ER HR BB K
7/18/16 Padres 6.0 6 1 1 0 11
7/10/16 Brewers 7.0 6 1 0 0 10

PitchF/x basics over last two starts (July 10th and July 18th)

Remember: Regarding horizontal movement in right-handed pitchers, a negative value means arm-side movement, whereas a positive value means glove-side movement.

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (MPH) Dragless Horizontal Mov. (in.) Whiffs/Swing Ground Balls/Balls in Play
Sinker 35.29% 91.60 -10.89 19.23% 53.85%
Changeup 6.42% 85.49 -10.19 60.00% 100.00%
Slider 22.99% 82.21 12.03 59.26% 66.67%
Curveball 4.28% 78.43 12.92 0.00% 100.00%
Cutter 31.02% 90.48 1.99 29.41% 28.57%

Without context, the numbers in this table do not mean all that much. However, what if I told you that, over his last two starts, Leake threw his sinker and cutter harder than he ever has and that his slider averaged more horizontal movement than it ever has? Knowing these two pieces of information, you then probably wouldn't be too surprised to find out that Leake has induced an eye-popping total of 34 swings and misses (also known as "whiffs") over his last two starts, compared to 88 over his first 19 starts (or an average of 4.63 whiffs per start) in 2016.

Because of the extra oomph on his cutter (its average velocity is actually in top ten of MLB) and the added movement on his slider, Leake has turned to these two pitches more frequently over his last two starts, taking eight percentage points away from his usual sinker usage (43.16%). Based on the fifth column in the table above, can you even begin to blame Leake for the change? The point I am trying to make is that Leake's stuff is as sharp as it has ever been and because of this, he is inducing more whiffs than he ever has.

At the same time, I do not mean to portray Leake as some reincarnated version of Randy Johnson from Ken Griffey Junior's amazing Nintendo 64 video game. Opponents are still making (and will continue to make) their fair share of contact against Leake. It is all about limiting the magnitude of this contact, and as you can see below, it was weaker over his last two starts than what we saw during his first 17 starts as a Cardinal.

Launch angle on balls put in play (courtesy of baseballsavant.mlb.com)

Leake Contact Angle

As I began to discuss above, when a pitch is put in play against Leake, the launch angle charts show that he has experienced better results over his last two starts, as compared to his first 17 starts when a good portion of the balls in play against him fell in that 10-25 degree line-drive slot (launch angle primer found here). The red areas specifically show hits, but the grey areas (balls put in play) are just as important, and over his last two starts, Leake has been off the charts on balls in play with a launch angle of zero degrees or below, signifying a ground ball. There are two keys to success for any MLB pitcher: 1) limiting contact by inducing whiffs and 2) limiting the damage of contact by inducing ground balls. Leake has been tremendous at following these two keys over the last two starts.

Now, mainly for your viewing pleasure, let's take a look at some of Leake's nastiest pitches from his start against the Padres:

91.4 MPH Cutter to Derek Norris

86.2 MPH Changeup to Ryan Schimpf

83.5 MPH Slider to Derek Norris

82.3 MPH Slider to 2016 All-Star Wil Myers

Bottom Line

Does it help that the Brewers and Padres have the first and fourth highest strikeout rates, respectively? Absolutely. Are we dealing with an incredibly small sample size (two starts)? You better believe it. However, we are also talking about a pitcher who is heady enough to recognize that a change needed to be made in his overall approach, and so far, he has gone out there and executed this exact change. As I said in my opening, Leake has been historically average, a level in which many MLBers and virtually all MiLBers would love to reach. It is nice to see that he is not simply settling on being average. If Leake can be an above-average pitcher the rest of the way, the Cardinals will be just fine come October.

Credit to BrooksBaseball.netbaseballsavant.mlb.com, and PitcherList.com for content used in this post.