A week after examining Michael Wacha’s role in the rotation or bullpen, I’m taking a look at another Mike, who will definitely have a spot in the Cardinals rotation next season.

After three solid seasons, in which he compiled a 3.59 ERA while throwing over 190 innings each season, the Cardinals pulled the trigger on signing Mike Leake. Now, Leake was not their first choice, they had just missed out on David Price earlier in free agency, and as ace pitchers fell in free agency, the Cardinals cut their losses and signed Leake.

In his first season in St. Louis, things did not go as well as many hoped. Winning only 9 games, an ERA well above 4.5, and the fewest innings pitched since his age 23 season left a lot to be desired. Looking a little deeper shows a different story though.

In 2016, Leake’s FIP (fielding independent pitching), which basically adjusts the ERA based on quality of batters faced, stadium, defense, and other things, was his lowest in his career at 3.83. Basically, Mike Leake should have had a much lower ERA than he did.

Much of this is due to the Cardinals’ weak infield defense. Leake, who is a groundball pitcher, relies a lot on his defense to back him up and the Cardinals failed to do that. That led to BABIP against him, or batting average on balls in play, to skyrocket to .318, well above the league average.

Accounting for an improved Cardinals’ defense, the one that the front office has vouched for, Leake should make tremendous strides next season without improving all that much.

Fans, a projection system that forecasts how pitchers will play in the following season, expect Mike Leake’s ERA to drop to 3.95, a marked improvement from his performance this season. This comes despite a decline in his FIP. Basically, Fans expects the Cardinals’ defense to improve a lot, or the quality of batters he faces to decline.

For me, though, I still think Leake can do better than that. Fans expects a decline in performance, where outside forces lead to better statistics. In my eyes, though, Leake can continue improving. His FIP has been trending down throughout his career, and should that continue we may see the Mike Leake we were expecting.

I think that Fans is probably right on in terms of ERA, I can easily see Mike Leake pitching as the projections think he will. But I also think that there is potential for better performance than what Fans is projecting.

In 2013, when pitching for the 90-win Reds (yes it was only four seasons ago), Leake’s struck out fewer batters than he did last year, and walked more batters. His ERA sat at 3.37. Although that Reds team played better defense than the Cardinals probably will next year, Leake will also probably strike out more batters and walk fewer.

I could definitely see Leake improving to around those levels. Do I think he will? Probably not. I still think that fans got his season spot on, but I would not be surprised if Mike Leake surprises all of us next season.

The Cardinals look improved from a team that missed the playoffs by only one game. While that may not be quite enough to win the division, should the Cardinals get to the Division Series, expect to see the ball in Mike Leake’s hands. (Plus he’ll probably hit more homeruns next season too.)

Photo captured by David Banks-USA TODAY Sports