St. Louis Cardinals sign the uninspiring Mike Leake


Sep 30, 2015; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Mike Leake (13) throws a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the second inning at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals just signed Mike Leake to a five year deal, but what should you think about that?

Yesterday, the St. Louis Cardinals signed pitcher Mike Leake to a 5 year deal worth $80 million with a mutual option for a sixth year at $13 or $14 million. Are you excited yet?

Yeah, me neither. The Cardinals have historically done a pretty good job getting every last ounce of pitching ability out of their pitchers, so maybe this will turn out better than I anticipate, but right now I’m uninspired (and that’s putting it pretty nicely).

If you like looking at average annual value, Leake is running St. Louis somewhere in the neighborhood of $16 million per season. Let’s see what $16 million buys you these days.

Leake is still young, only 28 years old, so that’s a plus. His ERA doesn’t look awful, sitting at 3.88 over the course of his career. He also has tossed 190 or more innings over each of the past three seasons, which is good for a rotation relying on some questionable arms. Maybe not inspiring yet, but this doesn’t seem like a terrible move, right?

Unfortunately, probably wrong. His best season in terms of WAR brought him in at 2.3 fWAR (2.0 fWAR is league average), and his career FIP of 4.21 indicates that maybe he isn’t as good as his ERA suggests.

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But, WAR isn’t perfect, especially with pitchers who don’t strike out many batters, and it looks like Leake has a habit of beating his FIP, so maybe our advanced metrics failed us. Besides, he’s rarely walks anyone (2.28 BB/9 in his career), and that helps minimize the damage when batters get hits. So let’s dig a little deeper and see if we can’t make this a good signing.

His K/9 is bad – he had the fourth worst strikeout rate in the league last season – so strikeouts aren’t going to help him much. His groundball percentage is good (fifteenth in the league last year), but his soft contact percentage was one of the worst in the league, which tells us that they aren’t exactly dribblers.

It seems like every time Leake has something going for him, there’s a counter point that discounts it. The fact of the matter is that Mike Leake is a really average player. The upside of his contract is that he’s an average pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and the contract isn’t awful.

The downside is that we wind up paying a good chunk of money for a league average pitcher and the contract isn’t awful. Barring an injury, that’s the only probable outcome.

There are some other things to like about Leake, such as the fact that he hits pretty well, and can field his position, and that could make him kind of fun to watch. He’ll also be out of Great American Ballpark, which should help his home run numbers a fair amount (and xFIP likes him better than FIP after adjusting to league average HR/FB).  He could get better, but he certainly isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite player or the next playoff hero.

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Given that the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t have to give up a draft pick, and that 200 reliable innings is useful in a rotation featuring Jaime Garcia, I can’t hate this move. Because Mike Leake is an average starting pitcher with basically no upside, I can’t love it either. The fact of the matter is that signing Mike Leake is about as uninspiring and uninteresting as a move can possibly be.