Mike Leake Was Leading the National League in ERA

Let us consider, for a moment, the matter of Mike Leake.

The mental image you have of Leake is probably that of a serviceable mid-to-back-end starter. Leake doesn’t strike many guys out, and he’s perhaps walked a few too many men for comfort considering his lack of punchouts. Leake does not make your team a contender, but he makes it viable. He’s a good bowl of potato leek soup if you’ll pardon the unwitting pun: not your first choice on the menu, but one that’s hearty and comforting when done right. Teams need good bowls of soup. They’re not much if they only have superstars and super-scrubs. They need something in the middle. They need arms to throw decent innings. Mike Leake has been that man for years.

Until now, perhaps. Before Clayton Kershaw took the mound last night and threw nine innings of one-run ball, Leake had the lowest ERA in the National League at 2.03. Kershaw has now assumed his rightful place at the head of the pack with a 2.01. That would seem like a return to normalcy — that is, if Leake’s 2.03 ERA itself weren’t so abnormal.

As you might suspect, the underlying metrics don’t think Leake is pitching exactly this well. His 3.18 FIP is still quite good, while his 3.73 DRA is less enthusiastic. His ground-ball rate is identical to last year’s, while he’s allowing fewer line drives and more fly balls. Opposing batters are putting just .244 when they put the ball in play against him, which is interesting considering that the Cardinals haven’t been all that great on defense this year. He’s not creating especially soft or hard contact, either. He’s near the middle of the league in average exit velocity.

So what exactly is going on here? How does a soul-warming bowl of soup turn into a delicacy?

Let us consider, for a moment, the St. Louis rotation.

Cardinals starters have allowed 96 runs. They’re the only team still in double-digits. They’re 15 runs better than the next-best team, the Royals. Adam Wainwright has a 4.81 ERA. The second-largest mark is Carlos Martinez’s 3.28. A rotation that was supposed to be adrift without the aid of Alex Reyes has been thriving, due to Leake’s success and sudden bursts of health and excellence from Lance Lynn (who just about kept pace with Kershaw last night) and Michael Wacha. This was not what was expected to happen. Wainwright’s struggles aren’t a surprise, but he was thought to be the rule, not the exception. There’s something going in St. Louis. Whether it’s a product of luck (probable) or not (less probable), it’s now a matter of record.

Much of this is happening because runners simply aren’t scoring when they get on base against Leake and his compatriots. The Cardinal rotation has stranded 79.3% of their baserunners, which is the third-best mark in baseball. Leake’s stranded an outrageous 86.5% of his baserunners, which is far and away a career high. You can’t allow many runs when runners aren’t coming home. No runs means a low ERA, and a lack of any subpar ingredients can make any soup taste like ambrosia.

How does this happen? To answer that question, you can start here. That’s Leake’s play log from this season. Of his top 20 plays by run expectancy, only four involve actual runs crossing the plate. Two of those plays are home runs, one is a sac fly, and the other an RBI groundout. There are also two pickoffs and a Bronson Arroyo plate appearance mixed in there. Here’s a table of the top 10, for your viewing convenience.

Mike Leake’s Top-10 RE Plays 2017
Date RE Player Result
1 23-Apr 1.88 R Braun Ground out.
2 12-Apr 1.85 A Rendon Pick off.
3 23-Apr 1.44 T Shaw Fly out.
4 18-Apr 1.39 G Polanco Ground out.
5 7-Apr 1.17 Z Cozart Pick off.
6 30-Apr 1.17 B Arroyo Strike out.
7 12-Apr 1.13 A Rendon Single.
8 7-Apr 1.10 J Peraza Ground out.
9 30-Apr 1.10 J Peraza Strike out.
10 30-Apr 1.10 E Suarez Strike out.

There’s no big revelation, really — just that, by recording outs in high-run-expectancy moments, Leake has avoided big innings.

Let’s seem some of this in action. We begin Leake’s highest run expectancy of the year. Leake had first and third with nobody out, and Ryan Bruan at the plate. The run expectancy in this situation is 1.88.

Here’s the third-highest run expectancy from Leake’s season — only a few pitches after the moment cited above. A run wound up scoring here, and it was on that aforementioned sac fly, which was just a few feet short of leaving the park. That’s still 0.44 runs less than was ultimately expected.

Finally, here’s the lone hit in the top 10, a laser beam Anthony Rendon single that wasn’t deep enough to score the speedy Adam Eaton from second base.

Leake has just a 0.99 WHIP, so he’s not allowing many runners in the first place. When they do get on, though, he’s been getting outs to the right places so that the runners don’t come home, or he’s been taking care of them himself. Remember those pickoffs? Leake has the most pickoffs in baseball since 2013, and by a fair margin. You can’t always pick runners off, though. And eventually the batted balls are going to fall in different places. Leake has allowed a .267 BABIP with the bases empty, a .203 with men on, and a .148 with runners in scoring position. That’s unsustainable.

This isn’t to say that Leake is going to suddenly revert back to being the pitcher he’s always been. The advanced metrics see something here, even if that something may very well just be the maelstrom of early-season sample sizes. Leake has worked 53.1 innings, and that’s not enough time to draw conclusions. The law of averages states that it’s more likely than not that Leake isn’t suddenly one of the best pitchers in baseball, and that at some point those runners are going to score, and that at some point batters are going to hit better than .214 against him.

How long Leake and his fellow pitchers can keep this going will determine how far the Cardinals can get this year. The NL Central is a mess that could be won by anyone at this point, but this point is also quite early. There’s time yet for things to even out. There’s time yet for ambrosia to turn back into potato leek soup, and that’s okay. Mike Leake serves a valuable purpose in a team’s rotation, and that and his relative youth are why he was paid so handsomely last winter. You need innings, one way or another. Leake gives you innings.

Normalcy may yet be achieved. That normalcy, in this case, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just what’s usually the case. That’s not as exciting as Mike Leake having a Kershaw-esque ERA, though. It’s not as exciting as ambrosia.

It just gets the job done.

We hoped you liked reading Mike Leake Was Leading the National League in ERA by Nicolas Stellini!

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Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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Spudchukar
Member
Spudchukar

I’ve been waiting for an article on Leake, particularly since he has been leading the league in ERA for quite a while. Wondering if his success would be construed as luck.

Here is what I do know. He is throwing harder. Not a lot harder but a couple of MPH harder. More importantly he has used his cutter/slider much more, and he has stayed out of the middle of the plate, without losing movement, which has been terrific.

So how does this translate to his success? Well because he has relied on those pitches it allows him to use the rest of his arsenal in tough spots, of course guided by Molina.

His results have been great in every start. I thought one outing he was fortunate, as he was missing his spots by a mile, and in the following one he was a little off, but better. The rest have been exceptional.

However, there is a caveat. He is a 6 inning/100 pitch guy. And it becomes very obvious when he is done. He elevates, loses movement, and location. Matheny has tried to get him through 7, and that is a mistake, and it has shown up, as almost all of his runs lately have come as he nears 100 pitches.

Will Leake rival Kershaw all year and edge him out for the Cy Young. No, he will regress some, but if he pitches like he has he could finish 2017 as one of the league’s best.

One last thought. Leake should win the Gold Glove. And he can hit and he can run, and yes he can pick guys off which means runners get shorter leads, and are more hesitant to steal. These talents should always be in the conversation when writing about him.

burts_beads
Member
burts_beads

His PITCHf/x Pitch Velocity doesn’t look much different.

Spudchukar
Member
Spudchukar

Since he is using so many more cutters, it shouldn’t.

chuckb
Member
Member
chuckb

His fastball velocity according to Pitch F/X is up by 0.7 mph. That’s only a small increase, not a couple MPH, and considering the fact that the new guns are reading velocity closer to the pitcher’s hand, we should expect EVERYONE’S velocity to be up a little.

In short, his velocity is probably no different than it was last year.

Spudchukar
Member
Spudchukar

The point I was trying to make is that cutters are often graded as fastballs, even if they shouldn’t be.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

He’ll have to beat out his teammate Wainwright (who should’ve won it last year) if he wants that Silver Slugger, though.

brad.vargas
Member
brad.vargas

He had a great game last night as well. However, I don’t it’s going to stick. I hate to say it, but I submit the argument of random success/luck due to SSS.

First let’s look for changes in his pitching. Leake relies mostly on Sinkers followed closely by his Cutter… to get batter to ground out. While his Cutter usage has fluctuated over his career, it’s been consistent for the last 2 seasons and pitch selection hasn’t correlated with his successful stretches. His Sinker and Cutter speeds have been very consistent over his career. He doesn’t strike out many and relies on his defense to make plays. His BABIP is a career low at .236 (.054 lower than career avg) and his LOB % is 12 pts higher than career avg. His control appears to have improved starting in 2016 as he drastically reduces his walks and that has continued into 2017. That might be helping, but why was his ERA 4.69 last season? Of course we are only talking about a 9 start stretch. Has he ever done this before? The answer is yes. In 2015 he had a 9 game span from end of June to beginning of August where he pitched 61 2/3 innings and allowed 14 ER for a 2.04 ERA. Despite that he ended up with a 3.70 ERA for the season. And even better, in 2013 from May to June he had a 9 game span where he only let up 9 ER over 62 IP for an ERA of 1.31. That season he did have his career best 3.37 ERA… in the NL.

So how can a 7 year career NL with 3.90 at the age of 29 drop his ERA by 2 full runs per game? Luck!

If he was anyone who had some success over his career, added a dynamic pitch or was a 24 year old flame throwing rookie, I might be inclined to believe in this fairy tale. It’s a cute story, but in the famous words of Dennis Green… “They are who we thought they were.” Mike Leake might have his career year, but because of what he has proven to be over 7 yrs his 9 games in 2017 is not an indicator that he is going to be different over 30-33 starts. For someone that only K’s 6 per 9 IP, he can’t rely on .236 BABIP to continue. That will impact his LOB% and thus return his ERA to north of 3.50 for the season.

Spudchukar
Member
Spudchukar

Really, Luck? Please! I don’t think anyone believes Leake will continue with a sub 2 ERA. In fact, I don’t think anyone in the NL will save Kershaw. But sometimes the numbers don’t tell the whole story. His cutter is much better and he is using it more, particularly to get ahead, which is vital for him. The Cardinal infield has been much better. Diaz has actually played well defensively, and with Wong playing everyday, and Gyorko/Garcia excelling at third, and with Carpenter at first and Fowler in center, allowing Grichuk to shine in left, the Cards defense is vastly improved. And then there is Molina guiding him through line-ups and jams, his success isn’t due to good fortune, there are reasons.

Add to the fact that Leake takes away at least a hit a game with his defense, which has to be watched to believe. The Cards believe in pitching to contact, and it is working, not just for Leake, but for Lynn, Wacha, Martinez, and Waino. But pitching to contact doesn’t work if you cannot catch the ball.

If these factors continue, then a 2017 season of 2.75-3.25 is not only in reach, but probable. Luck be damned.

brad.vargas
Member
brad.vargas

I have nothing against Leake or you being a loyal Cardinal fan, but you are lying to yourself if you don’t take his previous 202 starts into consideration. It’s not probable that he will end up with a 3.25 or lower ERA, even in the NL. I’m not saying he isn’t pitching great and his cutter and slider aren’t dominant right now. All I am saying is at 29 years old and his track record along with being a pitch to contact guy, he will not be able to keep this up. We are only through 1/4 of the season and he is going to have an equally bad 9 game stretch. Leake allows too much contact to save himself from giving up big innings.

I’m a Tigers fan and I still have my doubts about Fulmer continuing his success through his 2nd season because he doesn’t strike out enough batters. Fulmer, by the way, is much younger than Leake, pitches in the AL and still has a career ERA of 2.92 after 35 starts.

Spudchukar
Member
Spudchukar

As indicated in other places here, I too have my doubts about Cards pitching, Wacha and Waino. However, Leake looks like a different guy. Leake would have to register a 6.00 in your suggested bad 9 starts, which is awfully extreme. And then pitch to a 4.00 in another 18 starts, to finish with a 4.00. Doubtful.

brad.vargas
Member
brad.vargas

“You hear that Mr. Anderson?… That is the sound of inevitability.”

Now maybe Leake will pull a Neo in the Matrix and move out of the way of the speeding train, but as I stated before… Being a mediocre veteran that pitches to contact it will, more likely than not, all even out. He might have a good year, but no Cy Young and he better not blow up anymore or he won’t even make the all-star team.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

The Cardinals’ infield defense is better, but it’s still not very good. Diaz has NOT played well defensively, and Carpenter has also been very lousy, although he hurts them less at 1B. Playing Wong every day at 2B is an improvement, but he struggles sometimes on the routine plays. Although, Gyorko at 3B has been great, and Peralta is a decent defender when he gets opportunities to play.