At the time of publishing, Mike Leake is still slated to start tomorrow evening against the Tampa Bay Rays. This is despite perfect rotation alignment with a more exciting, and honestly, probably better option in Jack Flaherty. As you may recall, Flaherty, 21, was the 34th overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft. And through 80.1 Innings with Triple-A Memphis this season, the 6’4″ righty has posted a sparkling 2.69 ERA. At one point earlier in 2017 — through his first nine starts to be exact — Leake possessed a shiny ERA himself, and his 1.91 was near the MLB lead. Heck, some writers went as far as halfheartedly discussing Leake’s National League Cy Young candidacy. Boy, times have certainly changed over his last 16 starts. Leake has seen his ERA rise 2.25 points (to 4.16), all while losing the ability to miss bats and keep batted balls in the park.
Here’s a closer look at Leake through his first nine starts, as compared to the last 16:
As you can see, across the board, Leake became quite bad in seemingly coincidental correspondence to the notion that he could potentially be considered for the NL Cy Young. Sure, he’s reportedly been dealing with physical struggles — stemming from last year’s bout with shingles — but the symptoms haven’t yet been enough to warrant a stint on the disabled list. As a pharmacist, I’m admittedly skeptical of the notion that his recovery from shingles is still affecting his performance. But that’s, really, none of my business. Instead, I’ll choose to focus on what we know for sure about Leake’s performance, courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net, BaseballSavant.com, and of course, @cardinalsgifs.
Mike Leake sinker location
Remember, clocking in at an average of 90.52 MPH, Leake’s sinker relies on location much more than, say, Carlos Martinez’s 96+ MPH sinker. Location obviously matters for both, but it’s considerably more important when thrown at Leake’s velocity. Well, as you can see above, over Leake’s last 16 starts, his core sinker location has crept up and toward the middle of the zone, away from a borderline perfect core location over his first nine starts. Instead of inducing weak, often on-the-ground contact, this location allows both lefties and righties to drive the ball all over the diamond. And it shows, as the results against the sinker are quite different during the two time frames:
Using @cardinalsgifs‘ expertise, we are all provided with a GIF of two different types of Leake sinkers — one good and one bad:
For a sinkerballer, what is the difference between a harmless tapper and a sharp liner to the gap? Location, location, location. Against Mitch Moreland, Leake painted the low-and-outside corner perfectly, leading to a -20.7°/82.9 MPH ground out to short. Whereas, against Eric Sogard, Leake missed with the sinker, both vertically and horizontally. The result? A 13.7°/100.2 MPH line-drive double to the left-center field gap.
Removing the distractions, and including the heat maps embedded above, here is an abstract look at the difference in location between the two sinkers. It’s quite obvious which location is more desirable for opposing hitters.
Mike Leake cutter location
Back in April, for Viva El Birdos, I wrote about Leake’s cutter — explaining that the pitch’s early success largely came from refined location (as compared to 2016). Well, as you can see above, that location I raved about has all but disappeared, as he’s consistently leaving the pitch up in the zone over his last 16 starts. A 93.70 MPH Kenley Jansen cutter can work up in the zone, but an 89.41 MPH Leake cutter simply cannot. And it shows, as the results against Leake’s cutter have flipped in the direction of the hitter over his last 16 starts:
Yep, @cardinalsgifs is back to provide visual examples of the two different types of cutters from Leake:
First and foremost, we must appreciate the beautiful frame job by Yadier Molina on the good cutter. Molina’s selling of the pitch — immediately standing up and walking toward the dugout — undoubtedly had an impact on the umpire’s decision to call the pitch a strike. While this pitch doesn’t land in the exact core seen above (instead, it breaks across it), it represents an effort to stay down in the zone, as opposed to leaving the ball up and over the plate. The bad cutter was on an invisible tee for Anthony Rendon, and frankly, Leake got lucky. Rendon drove the ball — 380 feet, at an exit velocity of 99.4 MPH — but to the deepest part of the park, so it fortunately resulted in nothing more than a long out.
Again, removing distractions, here is a closer look at the two versions of Leake’s cutter:
Mike Leake is no longer “living on the edge,” as our own Zach Gifford detailed a few months ago. Fatigue is most likely a contributing factor, but all players are dealing with some level of fatigue at this point. For Leake, though, it’s clear that he is suffering from poor location on his two primary pitches.
Leake’s inability to get on top of his pitches is likely a contributing factor as his average vertical release point has dropped on both his sinker an cutter. Whether this is due to a kink in his mechanics or the aforementioned fatigue, both seem, on the surface, fixable. If a mechanical flaw, he can watch film to help get his release point where it needs to be. If due to fatigue, then a stint on the disabled list will be beneficial for both him and the supposedly playoff-chasing Cardinals. Here’s to hoping the club announces that Jack Flaherty will start in place of Leake tomorrow. Because other than Alex Reyes, Flaherty possesses the most exciting repertoire of the up-and-coming arms. Leake’s release point provides reasoning for a legitimate DL-stint, rather than the phantom stints utilized when a player is underperforming.