Mike Leake is almost certainly going to be traded—he almost was a couple weeks ago. Which is fine; he seems to want to go and he doesn’t sound enthused about the current state of the Mariners, nor the current state of baseball, nor much of anything, really. That means, though, that there are only a few more starts where we can struggle to appreciate Mike Leake. I think I have found something that might make it easier.
OK, I can’t wait. Here. Here it is.
Huh. Hard to tell the movement from this angle. I swear it’s unique.
There. I present to you: Mike Leake’s Four Seam Fastball.
It doesn’t look like much, but I assure you it is the unicorn of fastballs. There have been over one hundred and fifty thousand four seamers thrown in 2019. None of them look like Mike Leake’s.
Allow me to demonstrate.
Below is a chart which tracks every qualified pitcher’s four seam fastball vertical and horizontal movement.
There he is.
Mike Leake is alone.
With the exception of Adam Cimber’s sidearmed four seam residing in Antarctica, this graph is a visualization of what happens when Mike Leake lights a cigarette in a Denny’s and starts asking people if they’ve ever seen a UFO.
The next closest fastball to Mike Leake is thrown by someone named Aaron Bummer, which feels appropriate. The difference between Leake and Bummer is nearly five inches of movement (-4.3 vertical, .6 horizontal). Which means Mike Leake throws a pitch that is ~5 inches of break different from the next closest four seam fastball. Mike Leake has broken all the rules.
You think a four seam should rise? Mike Leake doesn’t care what your Trackmans or your Radarmans or your Rapsodomans or whatever any Man says—he sinks his like a White Star Liner. But just when you think you have him pegged as a typical rebel bad boy, he shows up at your church in a tie and throws his fastball with 8.7 inches of break which is the literal baseline for average. His pitch is simultaneously the most average and the most remarkable fastball in baseball. Once again Mike Leake manages to be utterly boring and completely fascinating at the same time.
Here’s what it looks like compared to every pitch in baseball.
Do you see him? The red dot?
The average change up drops 28.9 inches. Leake’s fastball drops 27.6 inches. The average sinker drops only 22.3 inches. Mike Leake’s four seam fastball sinks more than Marcus Stroman’s (!) sinker, a pitch named and noted for the amount of sinking it does. It’s not even that the spin rate is remarkable, it’s low at 2092 rpm and ranks 361 out of 413 pitchers, but it’s much higher than, say, Wade LeBlanc’s.
While no pitch is exactly the same, one of the most similar pitches in baseball to Mike Leake’s four seam is this:
That would be an Erik Swanson changeup.
You can tell it’s a changeup because Swanson always looks like this after he throws it:
Yet if you thought Mike Leake’s sinking four seam must be a terrible pitch, as I did, you’d be mostly wrong.
Sure it’s a pitch that hitters have slugged .442 off of and only whiff 13% of the time on, but compared to other four seam fastballs, it’s actually quite effective. He only gives up hard hits 36.6% of the time.
Some names: Stephen Strasburg, Trevor Bauer, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer. What all of these pitchers have in common is that their four seam fastballs are hit hard more often than Leake’s. Oh, there’s another pitcher I wanted to check.
Mike Leake’s 87 MPH fastball is hit hard less often than Justin Verlander’s 98 MPH fastball. Go back and reread that sentence. That sentence will be my first tattoo.
In fact, going through the list of most valuable starter fastballs one by one, only Blake Snell stands out as throwing a four seam that generates weaker contact.
Perhaps that’s why this year Leake throws it more than he ever has in his career.
That and the fact that his sinker is rated by Fangraphs as the worst pitch in all of major league baseball. If I were Leake’s coach, I would tell him to stop throwing the sinker, which is terrible, and just stick with the four seam, which is pretty good. To which Leake would likely grab my by the collar and tell me I’d better mind my own business. Fair enough, doing things his way is how he ended up with this four seam in the first place.
Being unique in this game is hard—there are only so many ways you can throw a baseball and hundreds of pitchers are trying to set themselves apart. Mike Leake has separated himself from the pack. Even if that doesn’t mean greatness, it means something.
We likely are not going to be able to watch Mike Leake throw many more pitches—a fact I am quite comfortable with. But I will miss watching this grouchy man throw a pitch that no one else would dare throw, that no one else is even trying to throw. I will miss watching one of the most boring and predictable pitchers in baseball throw his truly dull and extraordinary fastball. All I ask of my baseball team is that it’s interesting. So I guess what I’m trying to say is: thanks, Mike Leake.