St. Louis Cardinals: Don’t give up on Mike Leake yet

Sep 23, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Mike Leake (8) throws against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 23, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Mike Leake (8) throws against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports /

One of the St. Louis Cardinals downfalls of the 2016 season was their starting pitching. However, there are a number of reasons to have faith that Mike Leake and the rest of the staff will rebound in 2017.

During the 2016 offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals were in the market for a starting pitcher. David Price was the main focus and received a contract offer north of $200 million. Unfortunately, the Boston Red Sox outbid the Cardinals so John Mozeliak signed Mike Leake instead.

Leake was granted a contract worth $80 million that stretches over four years and has an additional option year. He previously had played about five and a half seasons with the Cincinnati Reds before being traded to the San Francisco Giants in 2015. Over the past two seasons, Leake has been a very reliable starter but looked like a different player on the surface in 2016.

While playing for the Cardinals during the 2016 season, Leake struggled mightily. He recorded a career worst 4.69 ERA and a poor 1.32 WHIP. However, if we focus on stats outside of Leake’s traditional numbers, there are many reasons to believe he will bounce back.

Since Mike Leake’s rookie year in 2011, he had never posted a walk rate below 2.04 BB/9. In 2016, he walked only 1.53 batters per nine innings. Furthermore, in three of his last four seasons, Leake struck out fewer than 5.85 batters per nine innings. In 2016, we again saw an improvement as he posted a 6.37 K/9. He also recorded a career best 3.83 FIP last season.

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Unfortunately, his ERA did not reflect all these improvements. But it may not have been entirely his fault. Left on base percentage and batting average on balls in play are two statistics that are typically consistent throughout a pitcher’s career. Any sharp rise or decline in one or both can often be attributed more to luck rather than skill.

Leake gave up a lot of runs last season because batters got more hits on balls in play against him. Because of that, his LOB rate also increased. But a rise in both of those two stats does not mean that Leake was a worse pitcher than previous seasons.

An increase in BABIP can sometimes be a pitcher’s fault. If he grooves pitches over the heart of the plate, then batters are more likely to have a higher average on balls in play. However, Leake didn’t do that according to his 2016 pitching heat map:

As seen in the heat map from baseballsavant, Leake was living in the bottom of the zone. He rarely pitched above the belt and when he missed his spots, he often missed low. Using Leake’s hard hit rate through Fangraphs backs this up. He posted a hard hit rate of 30.8% in 2016 which is the third lowest of his career. Ultimately, this supports the theory that although Leake’s BABIP increased, it wasn’t due to him giving up harder contact.

But contact is Leake’s strong suit. He isn’t in the game trying to get a strikeout every inning. He wants hitters to make contact and for his defense to make easy outs. In order to do that, the defense behind him has to be strong. Leake’s job is to limit home runs, keep the ball on the ground, and avoid walks.

Looking at Leake’s heat map for BABIP per baseballsavant, we see that he accomplished that for the most part and much more action is going on in the infield than outfield. Furthermore, batters put the ball in play against Leake more often than against any other Cardinals starter. Out of all batters faced, 78.6% of them put the ball in play against Leake. Meanwhile Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, and Jaime Garcia experienced 71.0%.

With that said, the sluggish defense of the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals affected Leake on 7.6% more of his batters faced than the rest of the starting pitching staff. That 7.6% amounted to 58 extra batters that Leake relied on a poor defense for.

Yes, Leake does deserve some blame for his poor ERA and 2016 season. But, there were seven players in the infield and the outfield that John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny trusted during each of Leake’s outings. Everyone knew what Mike Leake was when the St. Louis Cardinals signed him: a contact heavy, ground-ball pitcher. Yet it seems that everyone is surprised he struggled alongside the defense.

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The St. Louis Cardinals are not giving up on Mike Leake and Cardinal Nation shouldn’t either. He did everything he was paid to do but the rest of the team didn’t hold up their part of the bargain. With John Mozeliak and the Cards’ focus being on defense this offseason, Leake should see more success in the 2017 season which will help the Redbirds reach the postseason again.