St. Louis Cardinals: Mike Leake deserves to be taken seriously

May 24, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Mike Leake (8) delivers a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers during a MLB baseball game at Dodger Stadium. The Cardinals won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
May 24, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Mike Leake (8) delivers a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers during a MLB baseball game at Dodger Stadium. The Cardinals won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Mike Leake leads the National League in ERA, and maybe that’s not as much of a fluke as you think it is.

Coming into the 2017 season, Mike Leake was generally viewed as the weak link of the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation, and there was a fair amount of data to back up that belief. Leake, who skipped the minor leagues entirely and began his professional career as a big-leaguer with the Cincinnati Reds in 2010, came into the season with a career ERA just under 4.00 and had posted single-season ERAs above 4.00 on three different occasions over his first seven seasons.

After signing a five-year, $80 million-dollar contract with the Cardinals before last season, Leake experienced the worst season of his career–at least in terms of results–in 2016, going 9-12 with a 4.69 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP over 30 starts. He seemed to be close from being pulled from the Cardinals’ rotation in August before going on the disabled list with shingles, though by the time he returned there was a vacancy in the rotation and he ended up starting for the rest of the year.

Overall, though, he finished the season on a bad note, posting a 5.62 ERA with a .320 opponent batting average in the second half, and his struggles left many Cardinals fans wondering what the team was thinking when it gave him a long-term contract.

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Thus, it’s understandable why Leake hasn’t really gained the confidence of many fans, even as he regained the National League ERA lead after Wednesday night’s 6-1 win in Los Angeles. His 1.91 ERA is now a tenth of a run better than runner-up Clayton Kershaw‘s 2.01 mark. Under normal circumstances, it would be appropriate to label Leake a presumptive All-Star and early Cy Young candidate, but instead it’s almost impossible to make those statements without getting laughed at.

We see one or two guys each year who experience incredible unexpected success in the first half, only to regress to the norm thereafter, with recent examples including Drew Pomeranz in 2016, A.J. Burnett in 2015, and Scott Kazmir in 2014. Despite the fact that he led his team to a World Series and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting last year, you could even argue that we saw a whole year of fluky success from Kyle Hendricks. There are several trends that indicate Leake’s success might be more long-lasting, though.

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Ultimately, the biggest reason that Leake is unpredictable is because he’s a ground-ball pitcher and relies on his defense and luck for success. The key for ground-ball pitchers is preventing hitters from putting the barrel on the ball and getting it out of the infield, and Leake has done an extremely good job of that this season. He has the eighth-highest ground-ball percentage in the majors (54.3%) to begin the season, and he’s gotten a fair amount of luck with the pitches that hitters have put in play, as just 23.6% of those balls have gone for hits.

While his strikeout rate (6.16 per nine) is low, as it’s been throughout his eight-year major-league career, he has the fourth-lowest walk rate per nine (1.47) in the big leagues. The fact that he’s not putting runners on base in the first place is boosted by him having the fourth-lowest homers allowed per nine rate (0.59) in the majors and the lowest in the National League.

St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis Cardinals /

St. Louis Cardinals

If you want to delve into the fluky but supposedly “predictive” world of fielding-independent pitching, Leake is also excelling in that area. Leake is fourth in the National League in FIP behind Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg (probably legitimate) as well as Jeff Samardzija (probably not). While FIP tends to be biased against ground-ball pitchers, though, it’s worth noting that it did indicate an upswing in Leake’s performance as early as last season. While the results certainly didn’t show it, Leake’s FIP of 3.83 indicated that 2016 was the best season of his career.

As Leake admitted in a postgame interview with FOX Sports Midwest on Wednesday night, he’s constantly evolving and making and improvements as a pitcher, saying, “It’s been an eight year process for me…you only have six months to get better, so you can only get better for six months and then utilize spring to jumpstart the season. It’s a year-by-year thing.”

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While we don’t see a ton of pitchers become Cy Young candidates eight seasons into a major-league career, it’s certainly been done before to even more of an extreme (looking at you, Jake Arrieta, Bartolo Colon, and Rich Hill). Maybe Leake’s performance will drop off significantly at some point, but since he’s a guy who never got the opportunity to develop in the minor leagues and has been forced to grow as a pitcher at the major-league level, he deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt until he shows some type of weakness this season.