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.
|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.|
|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.
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.
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.