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Mike Leake lives on the edge

On the Black St. Louis Cardinals

Photo Credit: @cardinalsgifs

We are a week away from the All-Star game, and Mike Leake leads the St. Louis Cardinals rotation in ERA. He’s averaging about 6.2 innings per start, which leads the team. His 3.63 FIP and 3.77 xFIP are second on the team, barely trailing Carlos Martinez. Mike Leake has been very good.

Leake’s been very good with an uninspiring repertoire. His fastballs sit around 90 mph and top out around 93. Frankly, paging through the Pitchf/x leaderboard, none of his pitches get a lot of movement relative to the rest of the league. He has an average repertoire and a career track record of being average. Yet, in 2017, you could make a case that he was an All-Star snub.

So how’s he doing it?

Well, to be honest, I don’t know. He’s given up productive contact at a higher than average rate. According to xwOBA-wOBA, he’s been one of the luckiest pitchers on-contact this year. Since Leake only has a 17.1% strikeout rate, most of his at-bats end on contact. I worry about the sustainability of his production, but the eye test says he looks good and he’s coming off eight innings of one run ball against the most prolific offense in the National League. I’m happy to ride the wave as long as it lasts.

I don’t really like taking that as an “answer” though, and Mike Leake deserves more credit for his success. Digging a little deeper, I found that Leake leads all pitchers (min. 750 pitches) with 10.72% of his pitches located on a corner. Furthermore, he’s stolen the 10th most strikes on pitches out of the zone and induced the 9th most contact on pitches out of the zone. He’s located his pitches where they’re toughest to hit, which has maximized his effectiveness. Basically, Leake has continued a trend I noted in the first Statcap (and from which I took this post’s title).

Next, I looked through his pitch heatmaps. Leake throws six different pitches, including a fourseamer, sinker, cutter, slider, changeup, and knucklecurve. Remarkably, none of his location cores are over the middle of the plate.

Mike Leake St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL
St. Louis Cardinals Mike LeakeZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

And…

Mike Leake St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

There are six pitches, and only the rarely used fourseamer leaks out over the plate. Keeping the ball away from the heart of the zone reduces the productivity of batted balls. Additionally, it makes batters think and guess more, allowing Leake to keep them off balance.

Thanks to the great @cardinalsgifs, we can see Leake’s plan of attack in action. Below are the final three pitches of his second inning faceoff with Jose Lobaton from last Friday:

Zach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

Leake started this AB falling behind 2-1. All three of those pitches were on or near the edge of the plate, but he missed the target on two of them so I left them out. Hitting the edge on accident isn’t a bad thing, but it’s less impressive.

So, after falling behind 2-1, Leake evened the count with a changeup placed perfectly on the bottom of the zone. Lobaton saw a fastball coming toward the middle of the plate and swung right over the top. Leake followed it up with a sinker that tailed just off the plate. He almost stole a strike with this one, and had Lobaton chose to protect the zone by swinging it would have resulted in weak contact. Instead, Leake ended the at-bat on the next pitch with a perfectly placed sinker for a called-strike three.

The St. Louis Cardinals have gotten more than we expected from Mike Leake so far in 2017. He’s looking as good or better than we’d hoped when he signed for $80 million. For the Cardinals to contend for the division, he needs to continue producing at this level.

Again, credit to @cardinalsgifs his awesome work, and to Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball for the pitch charts and data used in this post.

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