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Seattle Mariners vs. Cincinnati Reds Series Preview: Focus on Mike Leake

The Mariners face the Reds this weekend, and I focus on the fascinating career path of Mike Leake. What's caused his 2013 success, and how has his unique career path affected his development?

Date Time Venue Probable Pitchers
7/5 4:10 pm Great American Ballpark
Aaron Harang vs. Mike Leake
7/6 1:10 pm
Great American Ballpark Jeremy Bonderman vs. Mat Latos
7/7 10:10 am Great American Ballpark Joe Saunders vs. Bronson Arroyo

The new interleague schedule has been a bit odd. But this part of the season is still interesting because of the rarely seen opponents, even if it involves playing the 49-36 Reds on the road while missing out on Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. The Mariners are fresh off a series win against the Texas Rangers, and today they roll into Cincinnati, where they'll face Mike Leake, Mat Latos, and Cornrows McGoo.

Jeremy Bonderman is still here, doing Jeremy Bonderman things. His strikeout rate has skyrocketed to 3.24 K/9, which is still worst among anybody with 30 or more innings, and it isn't even close. Bonderman saw some BABIP regression last time out, but still grasps on to his rotation spot despite his 5.43 xFIP and 5.58 SIERA. I don't know that the Mariners plan to do with Bonderman or how long his leash is. The next rotation move should be Erasmo Ramirez up from AAA, Bonderman to the bullpen, and Blake Beavan to AAA. How long it'll take until this actually happens is anybody's guess.

Today he'll face Mike Leake, who's having a nice season, posting a 3.53 FIP/3.85 xFIP to go along with his 2.52 ERA. Leake's been worth 1.7 fWAR so far, already topping his previous career high of 1.3. Whatever Leake has changed seems to be working, as many of his peripherals are improving, even though he's not striking more batters out. He's also dropped the amount of line drives he allows by a huge amount, allowing just 18% compared to 24.5% the year before.

Even though Leake's K/9 and BB/9 remain consistent with 2013, what's changed? A different diet of breaking balls, as well as more selective usage of his cutter. Here's his usage (and velocity) of his arsenal over the past three seasons.

Fastball Slider Cutter Curve Change
2011 35.4% (89.1) 14.9% (82.2) 31.8% (88.1) 7.0% (76.6) 10.9% (82.9)
2012 46.3% (89.6) 10.0% (81.0) 24.2% (88.5) 9.1% (77.7) 10.4% (83.6)
2013 42.7% (90.1) 5.8% (79.9) 22.9% (87.8) 12.9% (78.1) 15.8% (83.6)

Leake has forgone the slider for his curve and change-up, and the results have been excellent. Leake now also uses his cutter as his primary two strike pitch, and leans on his change-up to get back into counts when he's behind. Here's a quick look at his changed usage of these pitches.

Cutter 2012 Cutter 2013 Change 2012 Change 2013
Batter Ahead 28% LHP / 20% RHP 28% LHP / 19% RHP 20% LHP / 12% RHP 27% LHP / 18% RHP
Two Strikes 29% LHP / 20% RHP 39% LHP / 36% RHP 7% LHP / 7% RHP 3% LHP / 9% RHP

I always love looking at stuff like this before a game, because it gives more insight when the situation arises. Tonight, when you see two strikes, look for that running cutter from Leake. Look for the "get it over" change when he gets behind against lefties. Want to run down every scenario, check out his Brooks Baseball page. The usage charts are a blast to have open while the game is in progress.

Mike Leake represents an interesting model for the ongoing argument of rushing prospects. Hardly anybody was rushed more than Leake, who went straight to the majors after being drafted in 2009. Leake made the opening day rotation in 2010, and hasn't looked back other than seven AAA innings in 2011. Over his first three seasons, he amassed 3.4 fWAR combined, but has perhaps figured something out in his fourth year, and now the Reds have two and a half years left of him before he becomes a free agent.

Was it worth it? Leake's service clock before this year started was a straight 3.000, something you almost never see. There's no partial season that granted him an extra year of control, there were no additional years granted from demotions. Leake was drafted, promoted, and could use up his six years of service six and a half seasons after he was drafted.

So what's better? Taking moderately decent production for a couple years while a pitcher figures out how to be as good as he was touted to be, or letting a guy work things out in the minors instead, waiting on production while hoping the extra years of control will pay off in the end? Will a possible extension for Leake now come below market value because he didn't have the track record of success in his early years, as compared to if he'd waited and produced like this after his first or second season?

It's an interesting case study, and it's all wildly speculative. This assumes Leake really has figured something out, and the improvement in some of his peripherals isn't going to regress back to previous levels. It also is a difficult case to conclude anything from, given that virtually nobody makes the direct leap to the majors exactly like Leake does. Nevertheless, Leake is an interesting player to follow because he represents so much of what we all love to argue about rushing prospects. It's taken three and a half years, but is Mike Leake a success story for the Reds?

This started as a series preview but quickly became something totally different and fascinating. We have incredible amounts of information available to us, great detail that we wouldn't see just by watching a game. You can later reinforce what you believe, or discover something new. Today, I discovered a lot of new things about Mike Leake, and confused myself even more about what it means to rush a prospect. What does it all mean? I don't really know. There's still a significant amount of player development that we don't have the answers to. Watching players like Leake succeed and others fail only provides more information to eventually make more conclusions. It's only going to get better. That's exciting.