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40 in 40: Mike Leake

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You can go (near) home again

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners
Mike Leake looks like every boy I went to middle school with in Seattle in the mid-90s. Surprisingly, I like him anyway.
Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Ed. note: As we have done for the past few years, this year we will be profiling each player on the 40-man roster leading up to the first Spring Training game. This is the first year I have headed the project where the 40-man hasn’t been full at the outset, so the order won’t be quite as random as it has been in other years, at least for the first couple weeks. We’re also starting today, New Year’s, because Spring Training starts just a skosh earlier than last year. Everything is confusing, I know.

When Mike Leake signed a five-year/$80MM deal to play for St. Louis, he did it with some misgivings—misgivings that were quickly papered over by the number of zeroes in his deal, but misgivings nonetheless. The California native, drafted by the Reds before being traded to the Giants, had hoped to sign in free agency with a team on the west coast, or, even better, in Arizona. Instead, the Diamondbacks gave Zack Greinke a giant pile of money, and traded for Shelby Miller, and Leake got his payday in St. Louis. St. Louis, after all, wasn’t as far as the east coast. People are still Midwest nice in St. Louis, kind of.

But it wasn’t the west coast. And the Cardinals don’t even train in Arizona.

So Mike Leake was still far from the coast where he’d been born and bred, and he was still far from Arizona, where his father lives in constant pain, a pain that keeps him from being able to travel freely to his son’s baseball games.

In 2013, Chris Leake was in Montana, working on the roof of the log cabin he was building as a retirement retreat, when he fell. For seven hours he lay on the ground, alone, unable to contact anyone. He had a fractured rib. His shoulder hurt. And—worse than the pain—he wasn’t able to move his legs.

The bruises healed. The pain didn’t.

*

When asked about being traded to the Mariners, Leake is quick to cite the benefits of the laid-back atmosphere of the west coast, something he believes is beneficial for him and for baseball in general, with its long, punishing season. He doesn’t mention his dad, and the daily neuropathic pain he lives with. Mike Leake likes to keep things easy, breezy, beautiful. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to know, the differences between a Star Trek and War.

Manny Acta

There are red flags in Mike Leake’s profile. Never the strongest second-half player, Leake’s performance took a nosedive last year before he was shipped off to Seattle, something that was dissected several times with great care at Viva El Birdos. Leake attributes his especially poor second half to a strained lat, something he apparently thieved from James Paxton in the night in order to finish out strong in Seattle. His velocity is ticking down; his hard contact is ticking up. Leake also now must contend with the DH for the first time in his career. It is entirely possible Leake cannot repeat his brief surge of success in Seattle over an entire season next year. It is also entirely possible he’s not as ineffective as he was in the latter half of last year, pitching through injury and the growing threat of losing his rotation spot to Luke Weaver (or Reyes, or Flaherty, or any of St. Louis’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of pitching talent).

When Mike Leake was traded to the Mariners, the general reaction outside of Seattle was a sort of shrug, in a well-that-makes-sense way. Seattle needed pitching and the Cardinals needed to not be paying Mike Leake’s entire salary. Leake is a perennial backend starter, not the kind of pitcher with sexy strikeout numbers or the velocity that gets people excited. However, Leake induces a ton of groundballs, which makes him pretty sexy in a flyball-happy Seattle pitching staff, where he’s a solid #3 starter. The Mariners are paying Mike Leake basically exactly what Tyler Chatwood commanded in free agency this year, leading Dave Cameron to pose the question: would you rather have Chatwood’s upside-yet-risk (both numbers-wise and health), or Leake’s solid-yet-unspectacularness? About 55% of respondents chose Chatwood over Leake; I’m guessing there weren’t a ton of Mariners fans among them. Mike Leake may be boring, but he’s the kind of boring a mercurial pitching rotation in Seattle desperately needs. And there’s a chance that a change of environment can do great things for the laid-back Leake.

Anyone who’s ever moved away from a toxic environment can tell you: there’s something about being in one’s proper place that can recalibrate a person. Something about being in an environment that feels like home, with people who share your mindset, someplace your heart feels at home. There’s also something about being closer to what you know as home, to the people who love and support you, who you in turn love and support. And if you have anyone close to you who’s suffering, you know firsthand the amount of mental energy that’s freed up by being within a day’s drive (or even a short flight) of the person. If, in 2018, Mike Leake is able to be what Mike Leake has been over his entire career—a pitcher who’s been worth at least 1.5 fWAR and averaged about 175 innings every year he’s been in the majors—he will be extremely useful for the pitching-starved Mariners. If he is able to channel some extra energy and push his strikeouts up some while maintaining his low walk rate and high groundball rate (Leake is benefiting from a slightly better infield than he played with in St. Louis), he could be an incredible boon to the pitching staff. Here’s hoping a full year of the west coast lifestyle agrees with him.