People are quick to blame Mike Leake for his down season last year. However, that had more to do with fielding than it did pitching.
I am one of a small group of Mike Leake supporters left in the state of Missouri. Leake’s traditional numbers stunk last year, but I am still a part of the small minority that is pro-Leake. I certainly understand the opposing argument, but I don’t agree with it. The easy thing to do is say that Leake was really bad last year. He recorded a career worst 4.69 ERA and a poor 1.32 WHIP. Dig a little deeper, though, and the positives are there.
Instead of focusing on the bad described above, I prefer to look at the metrics that paint a more complete picture of what happened in 2016. Leake posted a career best 3.83 FIP last year, and improved in some valuable areas. What I am about to describe may not sound like the Mike Leake you have grown to dislike, but every bit of it is true.
Since his rookie year in 2011, Mike Leake had never posted a walk rate below 2.04 BB/9. In 2016, he walked only 1.53 batters per nine innings. In three of his previous four seasons, Leake struck out fewer than 5.85 batters per nine innings. Last year, Leake recorded 6.37 K/9. Significant improvement in two of the three true outcomes usually means that the pitcher was actually better. We just didn’t see it in his ERA.
So what? His ERA really did stink!
There is no denying that Leake’s ERA was terrible last year. I will, however, argue that the rise in his ERA was not his fault.
Left on base percentage and batting average on balls in play are two statistics that are generally stable throughout a pitcher’s career. A sharp rise or decline in one or both often says more about the pitcher’s luck than it does his ability. The reason Leake gave up so many runs despite improved K and BB rates, was that batters got more hits on balls in play against him. As a result, his LOB rate also increased. A rise in those two stats does not mean that Leake was a worse pitcher in 2016.
Sometimes an increase in BABIP can be a pitcher’s fault. If he leaves it down the middle more often, then that could happen. However, that did not happen. Here is a heat map of all of Leake’s pitches in 2016:
The above picture is from baseball savant. As you can see, Leake was living at the bottom of the zone. His pitches rarely went above the belt, and he was more likely to miss down than anywhere else. FanGraphs’ hard hit rate also backs this up, as Leake’s seasonal hard hit rate was only slightly above his career rate. Ultimately, what I am saying is that Leake did not give up harder contact, and therefore his BABIP went up, but not because of him.
If it’s not Leake’s fault, then whose fault is it? His numbers worsened for a reason.
Yes, there is someone to blame for Leake’s mess of an ERA. Actually, there are many people to blame. There were seven players in the infield and outfield during each of Leake’s outings. Those are the players on the hook for the .318 BABIP, the 65.6 percent strand rate, and the 4.69 ERA.
The Cardinals ended up 24th in the majors in UZR, and while some metrics had them better off, the Cardinals could have been better in the field. One might think that poor fielding hurts all pitchers equally, but that isn’t the case. Batters put the ball in play against Leake more often than against any other Cardinals starter. 78.6 percent of all batters faced put the ball in play against Leake. Against Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, and Jaime Garcia, that number was 71.0 percent.
Another way of saying those statistics is that the poor defense affected Leake on 7.6 percent more of his batters faced than the rest of the Cardinals season-long starters. 7.6 percent of Leake’s batters amounted to an extra 58 batters that Leake needed to trust a bad defense on. The other pitchers underperformed relative to their FIPs, but it hit Leake especially hard because of how often he gives up contact.
I mentioned that Leake’s BABIP against was .318. In addition to being the 10th worst among qualified pitchers, it was also one point better than Edinson Volquez’s .319. Here are the two spray charts for Leake (left) and Volquez (right), courtesy of baseball savant:
By comparison, Leake looks like the much better pitcher. He has more action in the infield, instead of the outfield, and what is in the outfield is relatively shallow. Volquez has a lot of deeper balls on his spray chart. My point is not that Leake is better than Volquez. My point is that a .318 BABIP usually implies something like the right graph, but Leake was much better. There is no way a defense should give up a .318 BABIP on the left graph.
When you have a pitcher who doesn’t strike batters out, you need a good defense behind him. Maybe this team isn’t the right setting for Mike Leake, but he isn’t the problem. He does his job by limiting home runs, keeping the ball on the ground, and avoiding free passes. It was up to the defense to keep Leake’s ERA down, and it didn’t deliver.
Photo credit: Scott Rovak – USA TODAY Sports