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:

LeakeT1

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:

LeakeT2Although 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.

LeakeT3From 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):

LeakeT4

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:

LeakeT5wFB (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.

Join the conversation! 26 Comments

  1. Excellent analysis. I’ve always been a big Mike Leake fan but I think he would be a great candidate for trade bait with how he’s pitched this year.

  2. I really like Leake for the long term. Not an ace but a solid middle of the rotation guy who is durable and does a lot of little things well. Just me perhaps, but I’d sign Leake and either Cueto or Latos and trade the other. Keep Mike Leake please Walt and Bob.

  3. Leake has been a pleasant surprise. I thought he would fade with age in the majors faster than average. Goes to show everyone that a pitcher can perform well without a blazing fastball. In some respects throwing hard can be a liability to a pitchers control and even worse… to his health.

    With so many quality pitchers rising up through the ranks of our farm system is does have me curious to see what the Reds do with Leake – Cueto – Latos. I think we can sign one of those three myself and probably not Cueto since his asking price will be in the top 5 for pitchers all time. Leake would be the most cost effective pitcher to sign and also probably less inclined to injury than either Latos or Cueto long term. My guess is that Leake gets signed. Maybe the Reds try to convince Cueto or Latos to sign up for a premium price for a short 2 or 3 year contract? That might be the way to go if they are willing to do it. Either way they should try to get Leake on a 5 year or more signing if the price is right.

  4. Nice analysis Michael. You just made the point for re-signing Leake this winter to an extension. Leake will turn 27 this winter. I think a nice 4 year deal would work out for both him and the Reds that will take up his final year of arbitration and three years of free agency. A deal like Milwaukee signed Matt Garza to last year, a 4 year/ $52M. Then when this deal would expire, Leake would be 31 and still in line for another big contract when he moves on.
    Then try to get either Cueto or Latos signed to an extension. At this time, I think Cueto is the better pitcher, but Latos is younger with a little more upside. I go back and forth trying to decide which one would be best to sign and which would be better to possibly trade. That is going to be one tough decision to make.

    • Leake will want more. I would bet that none of the 3 will sign extensions. We also need to make sure we do not do another 6 year deal.

    • The Reds would be crazy to pay Mike Leake $13 million a year while balking at paying Johnny Cueto $20-22. Leake’s a decent starter but a strictly middle of the rotation guy at best. Cueto is one of the best in the business. Their priority should be extending Cueto first and then offering Leake something like Cueto got 4 years ago.

  5. Great analysis. I see the Reds keeping Leake and letting one of Cueto/Latos go. I can’t help thinking Latos is the odd man out. If it’s Cueto, it’s only because of the size of his contract he will command, I believe.

    The one I would like to get rid of is Homer. I was impressed with him some 2 years ago, but not so much last season. I definitely didn’t think he deserved that contract. And, now, even if we wanted to trade him, we wouldn’t get that much for him with Homer on the DL now.

    • While I tend yto agree, Homer had by far his best year last year. In fact that is the reason I did not wnat to sign him as I think they paid him for a percieved improvement vs. actual performance.

  6. I wonder if Leake’s FB average is higher than Latos’ this year? How crazy is that, and does that change the pecking order of extending them, if at all?

    • That’s a great question. The thing about Latos that continues to impress me is that he has proven that he can pitch effectively at 90-92 (his curve continues to improve to the point of being filthy). If he comes back in the spring with a bit more zip on the fastball, he may even be better than he has previously because he has had to “pitch” without his best fastball.

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