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Mike Leake has been the Cardinals’ best pitcher

Of all MLB pitchers with only two starts in 2017, Mike Leake leads the way with 0.7 fWAR.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals are off to a dreadful 4-9 start (but hey, they won last night!), and one of the lone bright spots has been the pitching performance by Mike Leake. Sure, we are only talking about two starts, but these two starts have been downright stellar. In fact, of MLB starters with only two starts thus far this season, Leake is leading the way at 0.7 fWAR. Heck, when you include starters with three starts, he is still in the top five. After two plus weeks of primarily negatives, it helps to look at the positives, no matter the sample size. Thus, let’s take a closer look at Leake’s early-season season success. To begin, here is his 2017 stat line thus far (the stats I care about, at least):

Mike Leake, 2017 statistics

2 15.0 24.5% 1.9% .256 48.7% 0.60 1.37 0.7

Through two starts, Leake has struck out hitters more frequently than he ever has (his career strikeout rate is 16.2%), and he has issued only one walk. He has long been known as a “control” pitcher, so the walk rate isn’t nearly as surprising as the relatively high strikeout rate. I wouldn’t get too excited about it yet, though, because despite both starts coming against pretty good offenses (Reds, Nationals), it will almost certainly return to at or near his career average. The ground ball rate may be down from where it was in 2016 (53.7%), but it is still well above league average (43.8%), which is important to consider as we seem to be entering the “fly-ball revolution” for hitters.

Because exactly zero of you asked, I will now provide some of my thought processes behind the writing of pitch analysis articles. If a pitcher has performed differently from a season (or even a few starts) prior, the very first thing I look to is pitch mix (via — the gold standard for PitchF/x data). Is the given pitcher throwing a certain pitch more frequently? Less frequently? I don’t even look at the guts of the pitch yet, just the raw usage rate. Well, as you can see below, the main difference for Leake, thus far in 2017, has been increased usage of the cutter and changeup, at the expense of the sinker, slider, and curveball. Now, he’s still throwing the latter three pitches — with the sinker remaining his most frequented pitch — he’s just going to the cutter and changeup more often than he had in previous seasons.

Mike Leake, 2016-2017 pitch mix

Pitch Type 2016 2017
Pitch Type 2016 2017
Fourseamer 0.64% 1.53%
Sinker 47.92% 44.39%
Changeup 7.97% 10.71%
Slider 9.11% 7.65%
Curveball 5.56% 4.08%
Cutter 28.76% 31.63%

After looking for differences in pitch mix, the next logical step is what many consider the most important aspect of pitching:

Location, location, location...

Admittedly, it takes a slightly trained eye to understand the significant difference between these two heat maps. The cores of both maps are very similar, with 2017’s being one deviation toward the middle of the plate. Yet, the notable difference here is an overall refined cutter location displayed by Leake thus far in 2017. When dealing with smaller sample sizes, heat maps have the tendency to look more diffuse. This simply hasn’t been the case for Leake as the refined 2017 heat map is made up of only 34 cutters, as compared to 209 in the 2016 heat map. This shows that Leake has executed nearly perfectly on the plan to attack left-handed hitters inside with his cutter.

What about versus right-handed hitters, you ask?

Versus righties, you can see the effect of a small sample size (34 total cutters thrown) on a heat map as this is much more diffuse than what we saw in the 2017 heat map versus lefties. That being said, given the flight path of a cutter (down and with very slight glove-side movement), Leake’s location thus far has been perfect — down, away, and just out of the zone. Frankly, living just barely out of the strike zone is actually preferred for a pitcher who relies on weak contact like Leake. Plus, the core is close enough to the strike zone to still induce swings by opposing hitters.

Finally, I look to movement, and this is where things get a little bit interesting:

Leake’s cutter has actually exhibited less action (aka movement) so far in 2017 than it did in 2016 (1.31 inches). In fact, at an average of 0.76 inches of dragless horizontal movement, the pitch is almost perfectly straight (when compared to a spinless ball). However, one must remember the problem with looking at movement in a vacuum as pitches work off each other in a given repertoire (hence, my many articles on pitch sequencing). Thus, if this firmer cutter, at virtually the same velocity as 2016 (89.33 MPH versus 89.89 MPH) allows for a better, more consistent location profile (as detailed above), it can actually be considered a positive development — especially considering it still does an adequate job complementing the movement profiles of his other pitches.

You now have a small taste of my approach to pitch analysis articles. Going in, I usually have a general conclusion in mind, but more often than not, I come across something I didn’t intend on focusing on in the first place. Here, it was the cutter. If you know anything about me, you know that I typically dislike cutters — particularly Michael Wacha’s. However, when a pitch has yielded only one single through two starts and has a location profile as good as Leake’s, it’s hard not to get excited about it. Here’s to hoping Leake can build on his first two starts tonight against the Pittsburgh Pirates.