St. Louis Cardinals Starting Pitcher Mike Leake

During the course of an offseason, big-time free agents get all the attention while minor acquisitions are rarely noticed. However, there are also middle-of-the-road signings that can help fill out a rotation or lineup, and go a long way toward completing a championship caliber roster. Ian York takes a look at what could be one such signing in St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Mike Leake.

Having lost Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery in early November, and free agent John Lackey to the division-rival Chicago Cubs in early December, the St. Louis Cardinals signed Mike Leake to a five-year, $80 million contract in late December to shore up their rotation. The right-hander had been dealt at the trade deadline from the Cincinnati Reds to the San Francisco Giants for a playoff push that ultimately fell short.

Which Leake is St. Louis likely to see in 2016 the mediocre one who pitched the first 17 games of 2015 with an ERA of 4.39, the pretty good pitcher who closed out the season with 13 games at an ERA of 2.85, or the league-average pitcher that his full season numbers say he was? Did anything quantitative change about his pitches, or was he mainly unlucky in the first half and/or lucky in the second half?

When we compare his pitch usage to his outcomes over the season, a couple of things do stand out:

The above charts show Leake’s pitch usage at the bottom, his earned runs per inning pitched in the middle, and his WHIP in the top chart. The vertical line shows where he seemed to turn his season around, starting with his July 10 outing (8 innings, 3 hits, no runs).

Leake is mainly a sinkerball pitcher, with the sinker (“SI” as labelled by PITCHf/x) comprising nearly half his pitches (45.9% over the season). He rarely throws a pure four-seam fastball (‘FF”), but mixes in a cutter (“FC”), slider (“SL”), changeup (“CH”), and curve (a knuckle curve, according to PITCHf/x: “KC”). I have also shown his intentional walks (“IN”) to make the numbers come out to 100%.

One noticeable difference is that in the last 13 games, Leake turned to his cutter much more (24.1% of his pitches in the last 13 games, vs. 14% in the first 17). He also decreased his changeup usage, but otherwise didn’t make many adjustments:

Mike Leake, 2015 pitch use (Percent of all pitches)
Full season 1st 17 games Last 13 games
FF 5.3 5.8 4.8
SI 45.9 47.9 43.1
FC 18.2 14.0 24.1
KC 13.5 12.2 15.3
SL 9.2 9.9 8.1
CH 7.2 9.2 4.4

His cutter quality improved somewhat in the second half of the season, based on opponents’ total bases per 100 pitches:

The TB/100 for his curve, slider, and change were basically identical in the two halves of the season, so those dots overlay each other. For his cutter, TB/100 dropped from 12.6 to 7.2. His fastball improved even more (from 18.5 to 5.5 TB/100), but he throws that pitch so rarely that it doesn’t make a significant contribution to his overall numbers.

Is there any indication that his cutter was different in the halves? We can look at velocity and spin direction (which determines break direction):

The two parts of the season look very similar in terms of velocity and spin direction. It’s not shown in these charts, but his spin rates (determining the amount of break) were also very similar across the halves.

How about his location? Leake normally does a pretty good job of targeting the edges of the strikes zone with his slider and cutter. In 2015, his overall season location looked like this:

And rather than take up extra space with the charts for each half, you can just look at the season charts twice, because there was very little difference in his location between his first 17 and last 13 games.

So although Leake increased his cutter usage, and his cutter was more effective in the second half of 2015, there doesn’t seem to be any quantitative difference in the pitch that would explain why.

Going back to the first chart here, the pitch usage vs. outcomes, one important point is that, although the ER/inning chart looks quite different in the two halves of the season, his WHIP doesn’t seem all that dramatically different in the second half. That suggests that Leake may have been more lucky in the second half, and that is borne out by his BABIP a respectable .287 in the first 17 games, but an unsustainable .231 in his last 13.

Over his 6-year major-league career, Mike Leake has been almost exactly a league-average pitcher (career ERA+ of 101), and he was pretty much a league-average pitcher in 2015 (ERA+ of 106). Even though his season seemed to split into two very different halves, there is little evidence that Leake found anything new to make him a better than average pitcher; he was mostly just unlucky in the first half, and lucky in the second.

One thing that is important to remember about Leake is that, although he is league-average, he has pitched at least 192 innings over the last three seasons, and at least 167 ⅔ over the last five. He has been remarkably consistent over his professional career a career that went straight from college to MLB.  While nobody will be absolutely sure which Mike Leake will show up in St. Louis until the season starts, his career numbers indicate that he is a safe bet for a full season’s worth of solid performance.

Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

All data compiled from PITCHfx and Baseball-Reference.com.

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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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