St. Louis Cardinals: Spring Training Check-In For Mike Leake

Checking up on Mike Leake as we cross the midpoint of the St. Louis Cardinals Spring Training.

With Monday’s game in the books, the St. Louis Cardinals have officially crossed the halfway mark of Spring Training. The Cardinals look strong so far, holding an 11-4 record through eighteen games (ties? rainouts? I don’t know where those other three games are). They own second place in the Grapefruit League and have the best record in the NL  (for what that’s worth).

One pitcher we’ve covered a few times this offseason, Mike Leake, is off to a strong start. Through three appearances and eleven innings, Leake sports a 3.27 ERA and a 0.64 WHIP. According to Benjamin Hochman, Mike Matheny noted that Leake’s stuff has been “right on.” Derrick Goold reported that Leake feels more mature than ever. By most all accounts he has looked as good as ever.

Of course, we’re dealing with a really small sample size. Because of that, I decided to dive a little deeper into the spring stats. While PITCHf/x and Statcast data aren’t available (at least not to my knowledge), we can get some spring numbers courtesy of mlb.com.

The first thing that stands out is Leake’s strike-percentage (S%) of 98.1% so far. He has been absolutely pummeling the zone with strikes. He’s yet to walk or hit a batter and is striking out 15.4% of batters faced, basically in line with his career average rate. Obviously Leake will walk someone someday, but this is an encouraging start coming off his career-best K/BB ratio of 4.17 in 2016.

I was surprised to see that Leake’s ERA is so high relative to his WHIP. ERA and WHIP are very highly correlated (r-square value of .7571) and the average ERA/WHIP multiple is 3.0. Leake’s ERA inflation is explained by a HR/9 rate of 1.64, which is well above his career average of 1.10.

On the other hand, Leake currently is allowing a batting average on balls in play of .161, compared to a career worst .318 rate in 2016. Over a larger sample, we would expect that number to hover near his career BABIP of .293. That would probably offset the regression in HR/9, and the combined impact of the two on ERA would probably be relatively small.

If the St. Louis Cardinals are going to contend this year, they need Mike Leake to be the guy they signed for $80 million. So far, he looks ready to make that step. His track record suggests he has the skill and consistency to perform like a mid-rotation staple. While his ability to limit contact quality last season may not have been up to par, his peripheral metrics were the best of his career.

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Since his first full season in 2011, Leake has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the MLB. He’s eclipsed 170 innings in five straight seasons and has had an xFIP below 4.00 every year since 2011. If he stays healthy, he’ll most likely give the St. Louis Cardinals a similar season to last year in terms of FIP and xFIP. It’ll be up to the defense to help suppress his ERA.