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The Player: Mike Leake

The Terms: St. Louis Cardinals for 5 years, $80 million

The Cardinals plugged the hole in their rotation that was created when Lance Lynn went under the knife, signing Mike Leake to a five-year pact that includes a mutual option that bring the total package to six years and a reported $93 million. The headlines that quickly popped after the signing highlighted his anticipation of facing the rival Cubs, a line that would have been more impressive had he not already spent the vast majority of his first seven years playing for the Reds in the NL Central. So here's looking forward to the over-hyped first meeting between the 28-year-old Leake and new Cubbie Jason Heyward.

Career Stats

GS

IP

ERA

WHIP

H%

HR%

BB%

K%

172

1083.7

3.88

1.271

24.3%

3.0%

6.1%

16.1%

Leake needed just 19.7 innings of Arizona Fall League action to convince the Cincinnati brass that he was ready for the show, otherwise skipping the minors and breaking camp with the big club in his first year as a pro. He specializes in walk avoidance, registering a rate of free passes under seven percent in each of the past five seasons, settling in between a 5.5 and 6.5 percent walk rate in each campaign. The strikeouts have stayed consistently low as well, finishing between 15.1 and 18.2 percent in each season of his career. The tradeoff for this contact-heavy approach has been high rates of hits and homers allowed, with the former leaving him more vulnerable to the ability of the defense behind him than the average pitcher.

The few walks and K's mixed with his penchant to surrender safeties has shaken out to a league average pitcher over the course of his career. His career ERA+ of 101 reflects this relative standing, and the number includes very low variance, with each season finishing between 90 and 112 on the ERA+ scale – in other words, his run prevention has remained within roughly 10 percent of league average for the entirety of his pro career. The one area where he might be considered comfortable above average is on the win-loss scale, with a career record of 64-52 that nets a winning percentage of .552, but one would like to think that the days of pitchers getting paid dollars for W's is far in the rearview mirror.

The Stuff

Data powered by Brooks Baseball

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

FB Velocity

89.1

89.8

90.5

91.3

91.6

91.7

FB Frequency

53.3%

37.1%

45.8%

41.9%

49.8%

44.0%

CUT Frequency

11.3%

30.7%

24.4%

23.4%

21.3%

25.9%

CB Frequency

7.2%

6.7%

8.3%

14.5%

11.5%

13.0%

SL Frequency

18.4%

14.7%

10.8%

6.5%

10.9%

9.8%

CH Frequency

9.7%

10.6%

10.5%

13.6%

6.4%

7.3%

The velocity, though unimpressive on its own, has followed an uphill path from the sub-90-mph depths of his youth to the nearly league-average velocity that he brought to the stripe in 2015 (the Z-score for his sinker velocity was +0.14). Everything that he throws has at least a small wrinkle in it's flight path, with nearly all of his fastballs registering in the two-seam spectrum and a legit mix of four different secondary offerings that allow him to regularly avoid the sweet spot of opponent lumber. Leake's fastball usage has been very light, as he hasn't thrown more than 50-percent heaters since his rookie campaign, and his healthy mix of offerings has been a staple of the right-hander's profile since he was drafted. Leake is great at getting the baseball to move with subtlety, veering arm-side or glove-side depending on grip and forearm angle, with everything playing off the trajectory of the fastball. He saves his slider mostly for right-handed batters and mostly saves the change for when he has the platoon disadvantage, but the platoon influence on his pitch selection is slight considering that he has so many pitches from which to choose.

He doesn't really favor any specific pitch as his weapon of choice when a strikeout is in order, utilizing his slider and cutter with greater regularity when he gets to two strikes but with a relatively flat distribution of K's. The slider has been the toughest pitch for opposing batters to hit through the course of Leake's career, with a .183 batting average against for the 1877 at bats that have ended on the pitch—every other pitch in his arsenal has given up a .258 batting average or higher. Opponent ISO tells a similar story, except that the slider falls back with the rest of the pack, as every pitch type has resulted in an isolated power of .146 or greater.

The Mechanics

Mechanics Report Card

2013

2014

2015

Balance

50

40

40

Momentum

55

55

55

Torque

50

50

50

Posture

50

55

55

Repetition

60

60

60

Overall

C

C

C

For an explanation on the grading system for pitching mechanics, please consult this pair of articles.

His balance and posture went different directions in 2014, with the balance taking a big hit to the underside of average but finishing with stronger posture at release point, a rare combination given that one typically begets the other. The knock to his balance manifested in multiple directions, with a tendency to lean toward the first-base side at maximum leg lift as well as a weight-shift that kept his head behind his center-of-gravity during the stride phase, and those specific elements were present again last season.

The imbalance is more obvious when Leake is pitching from the stretch, but the windup has been progressively worse over the years. The fact that his posture has improved in the meantime suggests that his head displacement (which underpins the imbalance) is a function of blatant manipulation rather than a breakdown in his functional strength, an element which simultaneously makes it easier for Leake to address the issue yet clouds the possibility that it will be addressed. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and Leake has $80 million reasons to backup the notion that there is nothing broken that he needs to fix.

The Verdict: High cost for a low ceiling

The Cardinals paid a sum that was $10 million cheaper over the same five-year span than what the Giants paid for Jeff Samardzija, with Leake representing essentially the opposite profile, trading velocity and upside for a high floor and a more varied mix of pitches. Debates aside about certainty versus the cost of potential marginal value, the long-term concern over a pitcher such as Leake is that he has he has to maintain his consistency over the next five years in order to justify such a heavy financial commitment. His run prevention has hugged the league average for his entire career, and though his contract might represent the going rate for league-average starters on the open market these days, he appears to have little room for upward mobility in his performance. With such a low ceiling, the Cards are counting on Leake to be a support beam in the middle of the rotation and a dip in performance could drop him to the bottom of the pecking order. He does have room for mechanical improvement and he's one of the rare pitchers with an upward trend of velocity, so there are signs to generate optimism, but as a pitcher that pitches to contact his stat-line is particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of balls in play. There is a lot that could go wrong here, but the Cardinals deserve the benefit of the doubt considering how well they have done with pitchers over the years.

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mwright
12/24
Fair points made in this piece, however, we also have to account for the value of the draft pick the Giants lose in their signing of Samardzija. I'm sure each team values picks a little differently, however, they clearly have a value that shouldn't be ignored.
DemBums
12/24
Since the beginning of his ML career, observers and announcers have often
remarked that Leake is "the best all-around athlete on the field". Maybe that
is a part of the $80 M equation, and NL and StL are probably advantages, but
it's hard not to envision a ceiling of 14 - 9, 3.45. P.L. Wysard