We are officially three weeks into the 2017 season, and Mike Leake has been the St. Louis Cardinals best pitcher. As of April 22nd, he leads all qualified National League starting pitchers with a 0.84 ERA. His FIP, which estimates a pitcher’s ERA independent of his team defense, is an impressive 1.72.
To call this a surprise is an understatement, but there were some who predicted Leake would bounce back. You’ve read all about his peripherals this offseason, and you might have read Joe Schwarz’s article on VEB regarding Leake’s repertoire so far this year. What you probably haven’t read about yet is his pitch execution, specifically as it relates to pitch tunneling.
I’m simplifying a lot, but at its core, pitch tunneling quantifies how similarly different pitches look at the point in time where a batter must decide whether or not to swing. Pitchers who focus on tunneling emphasize quick, late break and release point consistency over more impressive break. Well-executed tunneling can make a pitcher more deceptive, leading to weaker contact. For a pitch-to-contact guy like Mike Leake, this concept could be a key to his effectiveness.
In each of the past three years (2014–2016), Mike Leake has ranked in the top 16% of pitchers in terms of tunnel differential, and he has improved his standing each year. With that in mind, I teamed up with @cardinalsgifs to take a deeper look into Leake’s utilization of pitch tunnels at the expense of Francisco Cervelli.
While Cervelli is no Mike Trout, he’s still a very good hitter. Since 2013, he’s generated a 114 wRC+ at the plate (14% better than average), which puts him alongside Albert Pujols and Dexter Fowler. In this particular at-bat, Cervelli came to the plate with the tying run on second base. Fortunately for St. Louis, Leake got him to ground out on a ball hit so weakly it went untracked by Statcast.
Let’s take a look at how Leake approached the at-bat, focusing on pitch tunneling and sequencing.
Mike Leake started the at-bat off with a cutter (orange trail), painted perfectly on the low outside corner. He followed it up with a sinker (yellow), which took a nearly identical path before darting about six inches lower in the zone. Molina barely had to move his glove on either pitch, a testament to Leake’s perfect execution.
Given their location, both pitches would have been nearly impossible for Cervelli to drive. since 2015, Cervelli has an average batted ball exit velocity of only 80.9 mph and a .216 batting average on pitches in this part of the zone, compared to an average exit velocity of 89.0 mph and batting average of .291 on pitches anywhere else.
For the third pitch of the at-bat, Leake threw a slider (green) that broke way out of the zone. While this looks like a wasted pitch, he matched his release point from the first two pitches exactly and, again, started the pitch on an identical trail as those first two (as you’ll see more clearly below).
The fourth pitch was another cutter (orange) that started on the corner before breaking just off the plate. Honestly, when I watched this live, I couldn’t believe the at-bat didn’t end with Cervelli chasing this pitch.
Having failed to get Cervelli to chase on two well-executed pitches, Leake turned to his changeup (blue). Again, Leake matched his release point perfectly. This time, though, instead of trying to get Cervelli to chase a pitch off the outside corner, he threw one that started over the heart of the plate. Cervelli began his swing at what he thought was a fastball coming about knee-high down the middle. He ended his swing out on his front foot, barely tapping a changeup that dove six inches below the zone.
Throughout this entire at-bat, Leake didn’t give Cervelli a single pitch which he could drive. He showed three different velocities with the low-90’s fastballs, an 87 mph changeup, and an 83 mph slider. Every pitch came from the same release point and looked identical out of his hand for at least half of their respective flights to the plate. Cervelli was left to guess at what was coming. When he guessed wrong, he ended the Pirates’ threat.
This style of attack and execution is nothing new for Mike Leake, as evidenced by his tunnel differential standing over the past three years. Paging back through his game logs from this year, I found 11 at-bats where Leake executed this same tunnel and sequencing strategy over entire at-bats, and plenty more pitch pairs that fit the pattern.
Mike Leake is never going to get by on raw “stuff.” He doesn’t have high velocity and he doesn’t get exceptional movement. But what he lacks in velocity and movement, he makes up in tunneling, sequencing, and command.