When the Reds used their first pick in the 2010 amateur draft on Mike Leake, it was a considered a low-ceiling, but low-risk selection. He was coming off an impressive year at Arizona State University, going 16-1 with a 1.71 ERA, but scouts were concerned about his lack of a mid-90s fastball. In a year full of disappointments, perhaps Reds fans can point to Mike Leake as their silver-lining for the season.
We have two questions to answer today: Has Mike Leake improved as a pitcher, or is his success due to non-repeatable events (read: luck)? Second, if his year is not driven by luck, what has Leake done to improve as a pitcher?
First lets see if conventional wisdom — that Mike Leake has improved over his previous years — holds true. Table 1 shows Leake’s performance stats dating back to 2010:
Going into this year, Leake had shown steady improvement in the number of innings he logs on the hill. Furthermore, he was trending in the right direction with WAR, doubling his value since he broke into the league four years ago. Table 2 adds 2014 to the data. Leake has continued his trend upward:
Although his ERA is a touch higher than it was last year, his ERA -predictors show a strong improvement this year over previous years. His improvement in (f)WAR is mainly due to his improved strikeout rate while keeping his walk rate low. Compared to 2012, when he pitched roughly the same number of innings, Leake has increased his value to the Reds by almost a third. Leake is on track for about 4-5 more starts, so he should easily eclipse 200 innings (estimate 212 innings). If he continues at this rate, he would clock in at about 2.4 (f)WAR. [Just for fun, Aroldis Chpman has 2.2 WAR in 43 innings this year.]
When a pitcher is having an outlier year, the first two stats to check are his BABIP and LOB% [note: these are not factored into FIP or xFIP because they mostly represent non-repeatable skills]. This year, Mike Leake’s BABIP (.299) is actually above his career BABIP (.294). The same is true for his LOB%, where he is about 2 percent above his career norm. These are both encouraging signs because it means Mike Leake’s improvement is probably due to improvement in skill, not improvement in luck.
Table 3 takes a look at Mike Leake’s batted ball profile to see if we can learn anything about the kind of batted balls he’s giving up.
From Leake’s batted ball profile, you can see that he has cut down on his fly balls and line drives this year. Since home runs are a function of the number of fly balls a pitcher gives up, fewer fly balls means fewer home runs (this explains why he is having a career-low HR/9 rate). Ground balls are a double-edged sword because they are more likely than fly balls to go for hits, but when you pitch at Great American Ballpark, that’s a deal worth taking.
Leake’s improvement might be due to a change in pitch composition. Table 4 shows his breakdown by year, along with his fastball velocity (vFB):
From Table 4, we see Leake throws his change up half as often this year as he did last year. Those pitches have been reallocated to his fastball and slider. What have the results been? Take a look at Table 5, which shows the weighted value of each pitch:
wFB (weighted fastball) is a linear weight system that adds the number of runs saved based on the outcome of each time the pitcher throw a pitch. The change from a 0-0 to a 0-1 count might be small, but over hundreds of pitches, we get an idea of what pitches have accrued the most value. There is a lot of variation in the table, so take these numbers with a grain of salt. What seems clear is that over the past three years is that Leake does not get much value back from his changeup
He has also made a dramatic improvement his his slider in 2014, something that might be an outlier or it could be evidence that the pitch has improved. Since Leake is choosing to throw it more this year (almost double the previous year), there’s reason to believe that the value increase is due to skill, not due to luck.
From this data, it appears Leake has shifted his pitch profile to emphasize his best two pitches, while minimizing the pitches that he has the least control over. It is a small improvement, but from it, Leake has gone from a back-of-the-rotation player to a soon-to-be-wealthy starting pitcher. In fact, his improved value might be behind Walt placing him on the revocable waiver wire earlier this week.
It’s been a good year for Mike Leake, and we may only be a few months away from finding out if he pitched himself out of a Reds uniform.