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Mike Leake, strikeouts, and the value of defense

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Tweaks to the defense might go a long way for strikeout-challenged pitchers like Mike Leake.

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St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Strikeouts are soaring in baseball and have increased every year for nine straight seasons. In 2016, 21.1% of all plate appearances ended with the batter being rung up on strikes. That’s the highest it has been going back over 100 years (and up from 16.8% from just ten years ago), which is especially noteworthy given that they had to lower the mound at the end of the ‘60s because pitchers were becoming too dominant. Strikeouts are even more prolific in the National League (21.5% in 2016) because pitchers still have the benefit of what’s almost a free strikeout every time the opposing pitcher steps into the box. (Pitchers fanned other pitchers nearly 39% of their plate appearances, another record.)

It’s not perfectly analogous to the rising strikeout rate, but as you’d expect the average strand rate for runners has been on the high side. Since 2009, the strand rate (LOB%) has been over 72% in the NL even though the batting average on balls in play has also been high, and the home run to fly ball ratio has hit a peak (dating back to 2002).

What do we make of all of this? Well, pitchers are throwing harder. Pitchers have benefitted from a low zone to the point that MLB has at least considered tinkering with it. But when hitters are able to square up on a pitch, the ball is often traveling pretty far due to physics, the ball being juiced, or something else entirely. And maybe for whatever reason defense has become worse (or become harder?) the last few seasons accounting for the high BABIP.

Does the higher BABIP matter as much when there are, in fact, less balls being put in play? Relevant to this point, Rob Mains of Baseball Prospectus was a guest on Kevin Wheeler’s radio show on ESPN 101 last week to discuss PECOTA’s dismal projections for the Cardinals. During the segment, Mains brought up the recent high strikeout rate to affirm Wheeler’s point that defense may be overvalued in baseball. That certainly makes sense. When an out is recorded with only the pitcher and catcher being required to move that sure puts less stress on the defense. And couple the high strikeout rate with the balls put in play that would be routine outs even with plain, every day defense, and the number of times elite defense is needed to record an out is likely pretty low.

That’s a sound principle. Unfortunately for the 2016 Cardinals, they weren’t a strikeout heavy staff but instead led the NL in ground ball rate, induced the third most contact, and flanked that with a lousy infield defense. Their LOB% and home run per fly ball were also below average. They were an inherently flawed team for several reasons, not the least of which being their staff’s tendency to allow balls in play played right into their opponents’ hands.

Mike Leake may have been the poster child for these deficiencies. If 20 years from now you wanted to show someone the anti-2016 pitcher you might show them Mike Leake. He barely walked anyone, but had the second lowest strikeout rate (16.5%) behind Bartolo Colon for qualified NL pitchers, and the lowest LOB% (65.6%) in the league. The low strikeouts were right in line with his career average (16.2%), but his low LOB% was dragged down by a high BABIP (.318), and deviated dramatically from the norm (73.3% career LOB%). The result was the worst ERA (4.69) of his career, and only two other NL starters with an uglier gap between their ERA and FIP.

Leake’s batted ball profile via FanGraphs doesn’t tell much of a story. His line drive rate, hard% contact, et al, was pretty well in line with the NL average in 2016. He allowed a lot of contact as he always has, induced a lot of ground balls (53.7%) as he always has and as was typical for the very ground ball-heavy staff in 2016. What it looks like he didn’t get was a lot of help behind him.

I agree 100% with Mains’s comment from above, which had to do with baseball in general and was not specific to the Cardinals. And that’s an important distinction because the Cardinals might be the NL team who, based on their 2016 pitching profile, could benefit the most from good defense, particularly in the infield.

The Cardinals addressed this issue by banking on a year of experience from Aledmys Diaz, moving Matt Carpenter to first, and ideally (hopefully) playing Kolten Wong regularly at second. As for the outfield, other than newcomer Dexter Fowler, it’s a case of addition by subtraction with the lumbering Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss now in the American League. If these modest changes end up working, Mike Leake and the rest of the staff should be the beneficiaries. We’ll see.