Word for a while has been that Mike Leake was looking for a five-year contract worth something in the neighborhood of $80 million. The most recent thing we wrote about him was called The Upcoming Mike Leake Mistake. The Cardinals have now signed Leake to a five-year contract worth exactly $80 million, with a mutual option that won’t be mutually exercised. The Cardinals are without Lance Lynn and John Lackey, and they missed out on David Price and Jason Heyward, so it’s easy to see this as an overpay from a team in an increasingly desperate state. Mike Leake isn’t who you turn to for big, huge upside. He’s Mike Leake. As pitchers go, he’s pretty boring.
Think about it for just one minute, though. It’s fine to have an immediate response. We all have immediate responses. Immediately, nothing seems particularly special about Leake. But the Cardinals have earned some benefit of the doubt, right? They’re not an organization you’d characterize as desperate, or impulsive, or reactionary. They thought their way through this. According to reports, they preferred Leake over Jeff Samardzija. They obviously like Leake enough to give him this sort of long-term guarantee. Let us now attempt to justify this contract. Really, it isn’t that hard.
Where do we start? I guess we start with the market itself. You might’ve heard the market has been going insane for starting pitchers. You’ve seen the contracts; you’ve read the trade rumors. This is the kind of market that gives, say, five years and $80 million to, say, Mike Leake. Samardzija got a bigger guarantee despite a miserable second half. Johnny Cueto got a way bigger guarantee despite a slightly less miserable second half. The market has been good for pitchers of all stripes, and there just aren’t real bargains to be found. Not like you’d think might be usual. This winter, if you’re looking for an arm for the rotation, you can expect to pay for it.
And the Cardinals were forced into browsing because of the Lynn injury. There are legitimate questions about everyone in their projected rotation, and with Lynn gone, it exposed a certain lack of depth. As much as anything can be needed, the Cardinals needed to find a starting pitcher, which meant they had to go to the market. There wasn’t any way around it.
The market presents two options: you can sign a free agent, or you can trade. The appeal of a free agent is that it only costs you money. When you’re swinging a trade, you might be getting a guy with a smaller contract, but in exchange you have to give up prospects. Prospects can be looked at as money, on paper, but they’re not the same. If you’re giving up prospects for a quality starter, those are potential long-term values. Money, you can deal with losing, to a point.
And there are two sub-options with free agents. There are true free agents, and there are free agents with compensation attached. As far as Leake is concerned, he was traded last July, so that made him ineligible for a qualifying offer. So by signing Leake, the Cardinals get to keep their highest draft pick. The Cardinals didn’t lose any prospects, and they didn’t lose a pick that would’ve turned into a prospect. This was important to them, and the value of one of those picks might be $5 or 10 million. Maybe even more! You don’t want to lose one of those if you don’t have to.
So the Cardinals needed a starter, and they found one who cost only money. That’s a good start. Leake was also one of the very youngest free-agent starters. That made it easier to make a long-term commitment — pitcher aging curves don’t go as smoothly as hitter aging curves, but you still prefer youth over age. Younger pitchers are better at resisting injury. Younger pitchers are closer to having their peak stuff.
One even younger free-agent starter is Mat Latos, but pretty clearly, Latos isn’t as reliable as Leake has been. This gets into one of the important parts of the Leake picture: historically, he’s been dependable. He’s started at least 30 games four straight seasons. He’s been on the disabled list twice: once with shoulder fatigue as a rookie, and once with a hamstring strain last August. Leake has been durable, and while durable pitchers have suddenly developed arm injuries before, the best record is a clean record, and Leake has a clean record. He’s young and healthy, which is good for a rotation littered with question marks.
As further evidence of Leake’s health, he’s coming off a year in which he threw his best stuff. By our numbers, Leake just threw his hardest-career average fastball. Also, hardest cutter, hardest curveball, and hardest changeup. Leake is up about two miles per hour from when he was younger, and that’s not the usual progression. The Cardinals can be happy that Leake has yet to show any signs of wearing down.
As performance goes, Leake isn’t that much of a mystery. He’s about as average as average gets, having been worth 6 WAR the last three years and about 10 in his career. He throws strikes, he gets grounders, and he doesn’t strike that many hitters out. On his bad days, he’ll give up a couple of homers; on his good days, everything stays in the yard. You can count on him for an FIP- just a little over 100. His K-BB% stays around 10%. Leake is the very picture of a No. 4 starter. Maybe a No. 3, if you want to be nice. The Cardinals know he doesn’t have a high ceiling. They’re not looking for Leake to whiff a batter every inning.
You’ve seen the contract tool we’ve embedded a handful of times. It projects contracts based on player projections and certain future assumptions. Based on all the usual assumptions — $8 million per WAR, 5% inflation, and so on — a five-year contract for Leake would be expected to be worth about $74 million. It’s south of the Cardinals’ guarantee, but it’s in the neighborhood, so already, we’re close. And there’s just a bit more. Leake has done well to make himself well-rounded, and it makes him a more valuable player, especially in the National League.
People love to describe Leake as “athletic.” This manifests in a few ways. He stays on the field, which is one. Another is that Leake is a decent hitter. He’s not, really — he’s just a good hitter for a pitcher. But that makes a difference in his league. Since he debuted in 2010, he’s sixth in pitcher wRC+, third in pitcher batting WAR, and fourth in pitcher home runs. His offensive value has averaged right around a half-win a year, and that’s something. There are hints that maybe Leake is getting worse at the plate, but he still has home-run power. Leake doesn’t need to be pinch-hit for automatically. He can even pinch-hit himself in an emergency. The bat makes Leake a bit more useful.
And about that athleticism — a third manifestation is Leake’s own defense. We don’t have pitcher UZR, but we do have pitcher DRS, and since Leake debuted, he’s sixth in baseball in that statistic, at +27 runs. He’s been a little above-average in controlling the running game, but most of his value has come from plays made, and errors avoided. If you give Leake full credit for defense, that’s just about another half-win a year, to this point.
So you start with Leake as about a 2-win pitcher. Then you have up to a half-win for hitting, and up to a half-win for defense. At absolute full credit, with Leake as a 3-win pitcher, you’d expect a five-year contract to be worth about $118 million. Cut it in half and make Leake a 2.5-win pitcher, and you’d look for a five-year contract worth about $96 million. That’s 20% higher than the Cardinals’ guarantee, and I don’t think it’s the least bit unreasonable. Part of the Leake appeal is his athleticism, and that athleticism allows him to do things most pitchers don’t do as well. It doesn’t make Leake an ace, but it makes him a decent, reliable starter with hidden value elsewhere.
I think that’s all you need to do. How do you justify Mike Leake’s contract? He’s young, he’s durable, he’s decent, and for his position, he can both hit and field. It doesn’t mean the Cardinals got a Mike Leake bargain. It just means it isn’t an obvious overpay. Given that it’s the Cardinals, that shouldn’t be surprising.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.