Last year, Cardinals fans hated Mike Leake. This year, they love him. I suggest ignoring his ERA in both seasons.

In 2016, Mike Leake had the worst single-season ERA of his career. Many cringed at the $16 million the team paid him last season. I contend that it was one of the best seasons of his career. ERA isn’t a bad metric, it just has flaws. It can’t be used as a complete measurement of a pitcher’s ability, but fans tried to do just that with Leake last season. Leake is currently sporting a career best 2.64 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, but he isn’t much better than he was last season.

When the Cardinals gave Leake $80 million dollars before 2016, they must have known how to get the most out of the right-hander. Leake posted career bests in categories that are very hard to improve in.

Already possessing great control, Leake lowered his walk rate to a career-low 4.0 percent. Leake was already a ground ball pitcher, but he put up a career best 53.7 percent in 2016. His strikeout rate was up one percent from the prior season, and batters were hitting the ball about as hard as they usually do against Leake. Despite all of that, Leake’s ERA increased.

What happened last year?

Leake isn’t entirely blame free in this process. He wasn’t a great pitcher beforehand, but he was solid. His career FIP of 4.12 was a nice starting point for what to expect. With the improvements mentioned in the previous section, Leake should have had an ERA around 3.80 instead of 4.69. How can a pitcher give up nearly a full run more per nine innings than he should?

Cardinals Optimal Lineup, If We Ignore Contracts

The most obvious explanation is defense. Weighted on-base average (wOBA) is a version of OBP that weights each type of hit based on its run-producing power. Pitchers usually give up a wOBA between .215-.220 on ground balls. However, ground ball pitchers generally do better. This makes sense because a ground ball pitcher throws pitches that are more likely to induce weak contact on the ground.

In 2016, Leake gave up a .230 wOBA on grounders. That is only 10-15 points above the average, but it’s 34 points lower than his career average (including last season). Leake’s hard contact rate on ground balls did not go up last year. His infield just couldn’t make enough plays. If Leake had surrendered a .196 wOBA on grounders last year, the Cardinals would have saved 9 more runs. Those nine runs alone would have brought his ERA down from 4.69 to 4.24.

Leake’s 2016 ERA wasn’t so much a product of poor pitching as it was poor defense. Leake doesn’t miss too many bats, so he relies on his fielders more than most pitchers do. Last year was just an example of a season where it didn’t work out.

What is happening this year?

This year is a bit tougher to explain for Leake. It isn’t hard to explain because he can’t pitch well, but rather because the defense is still bad. Neel Kale has written about the problems on that end that year. The outfield has been worse than the infield, but ground balls are still not a strength of the defense. Nevertheless, Leake’s traditional stats are better than they ever have been.

Leake is averaging nearly seven innings per start while holding opponents to a .211 batting average against. The batting average number is unsustainable, but you expected that. Something had to be a little too good. Few pitchers are able to hold a sub-3.00 ERA while striking out as few batters as Leake does.

Leake’s ERA is currently a full 2 runs lower than it was last season. The only problem is that he is pitching like the same pitcher we saw a year ago. Leake’s walk rate is at 4.1 percent, compared to 4.0 percent last season. His ground ball rate is just 0.4 percent higher than it was in 2016. Batters are homering at about the same rate against Leake, too.

The only difference that I can really tell is that Leake’s strikeout rate is close to two percentage points higher than it was last season (18.1 versus 16.3 percent). 18.1 percent is one of the higher marks of Leake’s career, but he has done better before. I wouldn’t say that Leake can’t hold a strikeout rate that high. The strikeout rate increase explains a little bit and why his FIP is a career-best 3.58, but it doesn’t explain a 2.64 ERA.

Ultimately, luck will always be a part of baseball. Mike Leake is not getting batters to hit the ball any softer or miss more often this season. Instead, he is getting batters to hit it to the fielders more often. Leake is currently sporting a .234 BABIP against. Bob Gibson’s career BABIP against was .268, and Leake didn’t get that good.

Ignore the ERA

Leake’s peripherals this year are pretty close to what he did last year. The only difference is his ERA. Unfortunately, ERA is still the first thing most fans still look to in order to evaluate a pitcher. ERA is not entirely useless (like batting average is), and there are times when a pitcher probably is pitching more like his ERA suggests than his FIP, DRA, or SIERA. But it’s not even a good predictor of itself.

Leake has not changed as a pitcher, but his ERA is bouncing up and down. Ignore all of the statistical noise in there and you will see the constant trend. Leake’s numbers create a lot of noise because of the type of pitcher he is. Strikeout pitchers leave little up to chance by taking away so many balls in play. Leake’s pitching style warrants more balls in play.

Much of the randomness of baseball comes on those balls in play. The more often a pitcher allows contact, the less likely it is that his ERA will stay close to his ERA indicators. We know the value of a strikeout much better than we do the value of a batted ball because there only one outcome exists with the strikeout. Batted balls add more chaos to the equation, and thus make ERA a weaker indicator of pitching performance.

Leake is now in year two of a five-year deal. The traditional stats show a much-improved pitcher. The new stats show only a slightly-improved one. Despite the ERA fluctuations, Leake is no more likely to pitch well going forward than he was a year ago. ERA is easy to look up, but Mike Leake is a good example of how it can mislead you in player evaluation.

Photo credit: Dennis Wierzbicki – USA TODAY Sports