Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Leake's Season Start Eerily Familiar?

A year ago, Mike Leake was the talk of baseball. Aroldis Chapman had been the talk of the spring of 2010 with his big fastball and large contract signing. When Chapman was sent to the minors, Mike Leake, recently drafted out of Arizona State University, quietly made the Reds' rotation despite not having pitched a day in the minors. By June 5, 2010, Mike Leake had won all five of his decisions and became a baseball darling.  Underneath all the hoopla, baseball analysts like Rob Neyer and others were cautioning that Leake's numbers didn't seem sustainable. But the baseball public didn't care. This was a story. It's now a year later and Leake is having the same kind of start. Yes, he made the news last week for some very bad reasons, but he's 3-0 and pitching well. Will this season have the same sort of ending as last season?

The analysts were right last season. Leake's success couldn't be sustained and eight out of his next thirteen outings were terrible. Leake came into the spring of 2011 not having a position on the team. The rotation was set and it didn't include him. Most thought he would finally get the call to go to the minors and thus end that storyline. Dusty Baker kept saying that he had too many starters and thus didn't need Aroldis Chapman in the rotation. He didn't need Leake either. But then Volquez got hurt. And Cueto got hurt and Homer Bailey got hurt and there was Leake as the emergency starter to start the season.

And the year is different but the results are the same. Leake started the year 3-0. He pitched again on Tuesday night and got a hard-luck no-decision despite pitching seven strong innings. Is there any reason to believe that this season won't dissolve the way that last season did? Are we getting our hopes up again only to have luck catch up with Mike Leake? His ERA is higher at this current point than last year. Is he winning this year because of the Reds' offense?

The answer as always this time of year is maybe. But there are signs that Leake's season is less of a fluke than last year. His BABIP is low at .264 just like it was a year ago. But it seems that Leake has more command of his arsenal and is getting better quality outs. For example, Leake is striking out 7.6 batters per nine innings compared to last year's 5.9 per nine. He's lowered his walk rate from 3.2 per nine innings to 2.9. According to, four of his five pitches are in the plus category with only his curve lagging behind. Last year, Leake only had one pitch that finished in positive numbers. So, there is a bit more reason for optimism.

Leake is also leaning much more heavily on a cut fastball this year. Last year, the threw the pitch twelve percent of the time. This year, that figure is a bit over thirty percent. The action of the pitch must be working because his rate of infield fly balls has more than doubled. His contact percentage is down while his swing and miss percentage is up. The numbers seem to indicate that Leake knows more about what he is doing this season.

There still is the problem with homers. His rate of 1.2 homers per nine innings is exactly the same as last year as is his percentage of fly balls to homers. Any time you have that kind of propensity to give up homers, you have to cringe a bit. But overall, Leake seems like a better pitcher this year. His ERA is a bit high at 4.40. But that is largely due to one bad game his second outing of the season in Arizona, a place that is tough for pitchers anyway. You do have to like that four of his five starts have been quality starts.

The bottom line here is that Leake could fade again like he did last year. But at no time last year did his strikeout rate come close to what he is doing now. He is missing more bats, increased his infield fly ball rate and has four quality pitches at his disposal. While anything can happen over a long season, there is much more reason for optimism for Leake than last year. The question is, will Baker keep him in the rotation once Cueto and Baker come back. Unless Leake falters, there's no reason why Baker shouldn't keep sending Mike Leake out there every five days.

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