One of the side effects of all the Mariners’ pitching injuries this year is we’ve seen a parade of back-end starters trying to dress themselves as front-of-the-rotation pitchers. Congratulations, Erasmo Ramirez, you’re our two. Andrew Albers? You’re the AAce. As John pointed out in this piece, the most consistent starter in the M’s rotation who was actually supposed to be there has been Yovani Gallardo, making us all residents of a country we never thought we’d inhabit, All Hail Fearless Leader Yovani Gallardo. In attempting to patch up this rotation for the remainder of this year with an eye towards the future, Dipoto went out and acquired Mike Leake, a pitcher who garners the kind of wild praise your cousin’s boxed stuffing does at Thanksgiving. Filling, steadfast, and unexciting: that’s Mike Leake and his career 4.15 FIP.
Except Mike Leake hasn’t exactly been that Mike Leake this year. After getting off to a hot start to begin the 2017 season, Leake’s numbers began to trend back towards his career norms, which was expected. Mike Leake has been in the league long enough and put up stable enough numbers that it’s fair to consider him a known quantity. But as Leake’s numbers began to shift back towards his career norms, someone forgot to flip the “off” switch, I Love Lucy factory scene-style:
His K rate fell off as he got fewer swinging strikes on his slider in July and August; he fell from an almost 30% whiff rate in May and June down to 17% in July and August. Those are still elite numbers, but as the majority of his other pitches are very un-whiffy, losing the whiffs on the slider hurts. Digging into the pitches themselves, the numbers don’t look great, either. Leake primarily throws a sinking fastball in order to induce groundballs, but the sinker has lost velocity this year, down 1.7 mph. In fact, all of his pitches have lost velocity as the 2017 campaign has worn on:
Attendant to the velocity drop, his pitches, especially his secondary offerings, have been getting hammered:
None of those lines are trending in a good direction except the cutter, which has been historically a good pitch for him but seemed to be the major source of his woes in June. Leake’s curve is more of a show-me offering and has been hammered over his whole career, so I’m not newly concerned about that. The changeup has been a pitch he’s gotten mixed results on throughout his career; like the nursery rhyme, when it is good it is very good, but when it is bad it is terrible. But his slider has historically been a very good pitch for him, and seeing it get hit hard in 2017 is cause for concern. Shortly before the trade, Viva El Birdos took a look at Leake’s secondary stuff and found that many of his problems can be attributed to location, getting too much of the plate or leaving the ball up. Here’s a cutter he left up for a two-run triple back on June 25:
Looking at Leake’s 2017 season in isolation, the traditional red flags for a pitcher who is becoming ineffective/injured/aged are there: Velocity drop! Location misses! Leake has been working in baseball’s salt mines since 2010, without the benefit of the slow build of minor league time, unless you want to count playing for the Reds as being in the minor leagues. If Leake’s fastball velocity continues to hover around 89, as it has for long stretches in the latter part of this season, and he struggles with locating his off-speed stuff, then there is cause for concern that the Mariners have signed a declining pitcher. If, like his first start for the Mariners against Oakland, he’s back up to 91-93, Leake will be just fine. Not spectacular, but fine. And as long as he can continue getting ground balls at the rate he has over his career, he will be a useful piece in the Mariners’ fly ball-happy rotation.
At LL Night this past weekend, Dipoto talked about the fly ball pitcher experiment and admitted it hasn’t worked out, noting that the team didn’t go after fly ball pitchers because they love a fly ball pitcher, but because those are the pitchers who are available. (For more on the failure of this approach, check out Marc at USS Mariner’s excellent recent piece here.) Mike Leake is a ground ball pitcher who was available because the Cardinals are filthy rich in pitching prospects, and shedding Leake and his contract made good fiscal and PR sense for the organization. The fact that Mike Leake has not been good for most of the 2017 season is what made him available to the Mariners.
It speaks volumes of Leake’s overall perception that even after a sterling Mariners debut in which he went seven innings of two-run ball (for the 2017 Mariners that’s known as a Unicorn Start), Leakemania hasn’t taken off yet. Perhaps part of this is the knowledge that Leake’s first start as a Mariner is not the Mike Leake we will see on a consistent basis. His seven strikeouts tied a season high for him as he dismantled the reeling Oakland A’s. But he doesn’t have to be that pitcher to be worth what Seattle is paying for him. All he has to be is a healthy and serviceable mid-rotation pitcher. Leake’s 4.10 FIP this season already makes him the best starting pitcher on the team not named James Paxton (Andrew Albers and his 4.18 scoot down a chair, cast furious side-eye). He will also benefit from playing in front of an infield defense that’s a significant upgrade from the one he was working with in St. Louis. There’s nothing that’s exciting about Mike Leake, except that he will be a consistent presence in a rotation that has lacked one. Which, to be honest, sounds pretty exciting to me.