What’s Made Mike Leake Special So Far in 2017?

Right-handed pitcher Mike Leake has generally been a fairly average pitcher over his eight-year major-league career, with a career ERA+ of precisely 100. In line with that, he put up ERA+ of 106 in 2015, and just 87 in 2016. Unexpectedly, so far in 2017 he has the best ERA in the National League. After seven starts, Leake has a 1.94 ERA (213 ERA+) and 0.993 WHIP, for a 4-1 win-lost record. His FIP (3.11) and BABIP (.245, compared to his career BABIP of .294) both suggests that while he has been lucky so far, he has still been a very good pitcher this season. But his history suggests that he isn’t likely to keep at this level for the full season, especially since there’s no sign of any major change in his pitch repertoire or quality.

What he throws. Leake relies heavily on his sinker (“SI”) and cutter (“FC”). Neither is exceptionally fast; the sinker averages 91.2 mph (slightly slower than the average sinker’s 91.8 mph), the cutter 89.9 mph. He also has a slider (“SL”), curve (“CU”, and changeup (“CH”).

With a sinker, the pitcher’s aim is to remove upward vertical movement (the “rise” that standard fastballs show relative to the path they would follow according to gravity alone) and Leake is very good at this. His sinker averaged just 2.4 inches of vertical movement in 2016, half that of the average sinker (5.1 inches in 2016). That makes the pitch reach the plate lower than the batter expects, causing him to swing over it and leading to many ground balls; Leake is consistently among the league leaders in ground ball percentage (sixth among starting pitches in 2016; tenth so far in 2017)

The chart below shows his pitches from 2016, but so far in 2017 they have looked very similar, with the exception that his sinker may be slightly slower so far (90.6 mph), although all his other pitches are almost identical in velocity:

Mike Leake

Pitch usage and trends. Leake relies heavily on his sinker — 49.1% of his pitches in 2016; 44.4% in 2017 – and his cutter — 10.0% and 10.7% respectively — and throws them around the same frequency to both left- and right-handed batters. His three secondary pitches are much more situation dependent. Left-handed batters see relatively more changeups (14.3% of pitches to lefties in 2017, just 5.2% to righties), and fewer sliders (5.9% vs 14.7% to right-handed batters). He is also much more likely to throw his slider when ahead in the count (24.2%) than when behind (2.6%). These trends were quite similar from 2016 to 2017:

Mike LeakePitch value. In 2016, both of Leake’s main pitches (sinker and cutter) were slightly worse than average in terms of total bases yielded per 100 pitches, and were about average with respect to balls per 100 pitches. Neither showed much platoon split, unlike his three minor pitches, all of which varied significantly in their TB/100 to right- and left-handed batters:

Mike LeakeIn 2017, his sinker is still slightly below average, but his cutter has been very effective to both right- and left-handed batters. Again, his slider, curve, and change show marked platoon differences, but much of that is because of the small sample size — for example, in 2017 Leake has thrown only three curves to right-handed batters:

Mike LeakePitch location. Leake’s pitch location, like his pitch repertoire, velocity, and movement, has been very similar in 2017 and 2016. His sinker, unsurprisingly, targets the bottom part of the strike zone, while his cutter ends up inside to left-handed batters, outside to righties. In 2016, the cutter often ended up just outside the zone to RHB, while so far in 2017 it has been more likely to be a strike. His slider and changeup also both tend to end up outside the strike zone, just below the bottom edge:

Mike Leake


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Featured image courtesy of Benny Sieu-USA Today Sports

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

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