High on: Mike Leake

Mike Leake is a player I find very interesting at this point in the season. We all know that he’s the first pitcher in a very long time to skip the minors entirely, and despite being a top draft pick, he isn’t said to have top-notch stuff. In addition, his 2010 resume is quite strange. He has a 3.92 ERA, courtesy of two seemingly dominant (though lucky) starts and one seemingly terrible (though unlucky) start:

| IP  | ER | K | BB | GB% |
| 6.2 |  1 | 5 |  7 | 33% |
| 7.0 |  3 | 3 |  5 | 62% |
| 7.0 |  5 | 5 |  1 | 70% |

The combination of these three starts has left Leake with an unspectacular 5.7 K/9 and 5.7 BB/9. His 3.92 ERA might be enough for owners in some leagues to buy into him, but his 4.78 xFIP could leave owners in savvier leagues passing on Leake. Still, I feel as though this Reds rookie has some very redeemable qualities.

First, while he’s been called a “No. 3 starter,” scouts seemed to really like him, especially his pitchability and his command. Some even like his raw stuff, like prospect expert John Sickels, who had this to say when Leake was drafted:

While some might consider Arizona State RHP Mike Leake an overdraft at eighth overall, I don’t; I think that’s an excellent pick. He has very good stuff, and his excellent pitchability makes it all play up.


Additionally, after watching some video and taking a cursory glance at the PITCHf/x data from his first three games, I’ve kind of fallen in love with Leake’s stuff. He doesn’t throw very hard, but he’s got a very good sinker that will induce plenty of ground balls (as his 57 percent GB% to date suggests) and a good sinking change-up that should do the same (both with good horizontal movement as well). He also mixes in a cutter, slider, and curve.

The slider is insane, getting more than 5 inches of horizontal movement. Very few pitchers are able to generate that kind of movement on their sliders. It’s probably not quite at the level of a Zack Greinke or CC Sabathia or Jake Peavy, but it is quite good (and in terms of actual effectiveness, it’s generating 22 percent whiffs—roughly what Greinke got on his last year). His curve also seems to be a bit of an underrated pitch, generating between 5 and 10 inches of both vertical and horizontal movement.

The combination of good stuff paired with the scouts’ raves about his pitchability tells me that, yes, Leake does indeed appear to be ready for the big leagues despite not having thrown a pitch in the minors yet. His stuff is very conducive to generating ground balls, and his secondary offerings should allow him to post an above-average strikeout rate. Because scouts have always made note of his stellar control, and because he showed this during his most recent outing, I’m not going to freak out about the 5.7 BB/9 thus far. He’s also been able to find the strike zone at a slightly above league average rate thus far (49.7%), which should only improve and, at the very least, paints a rosier picture than his BB/9 does.

Oliver sees Leake posting a 3.68 ERA the rest of the way, and while that might be a little optimistic, an ERA around 4.00 (with significant upside) certainly seems attainable. I bought Leake during the first week of the season in both LABR and Tout Wars, and I’ll continue to start him and expect good things. While I’d take a guy like Colby Lewis over Leake, you might have a hard time finding a better under-the-radar pitcher available on your mixed league waiver wire. And if he’s still somehow available in an NL-only league, go get him now.

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  1. Tim said...

    Pitchability?!  What the hell is that?  Is it kind of like drinkability?  I have never heard such a ridiculous reason to be high on a pitcher.  I can accept that he has a lot of movement, or that he will induce a lot of groundballs, but using a made-up word like pitchability 3 separate times in an article makes me very skeptical.  If he pitches as well as Bud Light tastes, then I will stay far away from him…

  2. Derek Carty said...

    Pitchability isn’t a term that’s used very much in the statistical community mostly because it’s unquantifiable (or at least, to this point, hasn’t been quantified – I do believe it can be).  That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, though.

    If you’re a regular reader, I think you know that I’m about as stat-friendly as they come in the fantasy industry, but I also believe (or know) that scouting is important.  To defer to someone more famous than myself, Theo Epstein once said that statistics and scouting are two lens of the same pair of glasses – sabermetrics.  Even the stat-savvy MLB teams realize that scouting needs to be incorporated into their decision-making (and that includes the Red Sox, Rays, Mariners, Cards, A’s, or whoever else you want to talk about).

    Whenever possible, numbers should form the basis of our evaluation for a player, and scouting data should supplement the numbers, filling in the gaps, explaining the “why”, and examining the things that the numbers simply can’t.  For a guy like Leake, though, we don’t have a ton of numbers to go on, so scouting data must take a more prevalent role.  This, of course, opens us up to greater variability in our predictions, but that’s not to say that the scouting data should be ignored.

    Now, as to what pitchability actually is.  When we think of a pitcher’s abilities (not numbers or peripherals, but actual abilities), we know that he chooses the pitches in his repetoire, they’re thrown at different speeds and with different amounts of movement.  He’s also able to control them to some degree.  These are his physical abilities.  But is that really the whole picture of the pitcher?  Is a pitcher no more than the sum of his physical abilities?  Of course not.  Just as important is the pitcher’s “pitchability”.  Pitchability refers to his ability to keep hitters guessing, to choose good locations for his pitches, to sequence them well, and all that kind of stuff.  It’s more of a mental ability than a physical one.  That’s what pitchability is.

    Now whether or not the scouts are right about Leake’s pitchability is another mater entirely, but pitchability certainly exists.  And it’s certainly not a bad thing that Leake is said to have it.

    That being said, my fondness of Leake is based primarily on his supposedly great control, his good stuff, and his groundball tendencies.  That he has good pitchability is a bonus, and an important one for a young pitcher in his first year playing professional baseball.

  3. injunsteve said...

    Where were you a week ago Derek?  I picked this guy up in both of my Keeper leagues the day before they announced he was in the rotation.  My leaguemates go googoo over pitching prospects so once the hype started I traded Leake and Dallas Braden for Jay Bruce in one league and traded Leake and Jeremy Guthrie for Justin Masterson in another.  Hoping the early sell doesn’t come back to haunt me!

  4. Derek Carty said...

    I like Leake and Braden, injunsteve, but depending on how your keeper settings work, I wouldn’t be upset with Bruce.  I love him too (have him in both LABR and Tout also).  Masterson’s intriguing, but long-term I do like Leake better, and probably even for this year.  Masterson’s good, though, so don’t fret too much smile

  5. Paul Moehringer said...

    I wouldn’t sign Leake yet in anything other then a keeper league, or a somewhat deep NL-only league, but he definately is someone worth keeping an eye on.

    I think he’ll show flashes of what he’s capable of doing this year, but I think it will be at least a year before he really becomes a viable fantasy option.

  6. Lucky Strikes said...

    Love the article.  In a rare move, I picked up Leake immediately following his first start after simply watching the highlights on MLB.  Didn’t know anything about him, but he looked in control (despite the walks) and seemed extremely poised for someone with no minor league experience.  Could very well get rocked a time or two this season, but he looks polished and ready to pitch well.  To date I think he has the only “W” on the Reds staff, which says more about the Reds than Leake probably.  Could you forward your article to Dusty Baker?

  7. Peter said...

    Not to get too excited just yet, but I’ve only seen a few pitch-fx spreads like Leake’s since the data started coming out a few years back. 

    Two years ago, I came across a set of similar plots, but their author used color to indicate speed rather than pitch types.  Anyways, there was one well-known pitcher who stood out to me for two reasons: (1) he had a ton of pitch clusters, something like 7 different pitches from what I could tell and(2) he threw most of them pretty darn fast (FB was sitting between 95-97).  That guy was Felix Hernandez.

    The more interesting thing, however, was a rookie I’d never heard of by the name of Ubaldo Jimenez.  He’d just arrived in the league, hadn’t shown up on many scouting articles, and since Rockies pitchers were still considered un-startable, wasn’t getting much buzz.  But the one thing I did notice was his pitch plot looked almost exactly like King Felix’s.  Anyways, at the time both guys were still trying to figure out some pretty serious control issues (Ubaldo moreso) and both needed improvement in pitch selection (especially Felix).  Flash forward two years more, and you’ve got two of the best pitchers in MLB.

    So why am I bringing this up?  Because Leake is the first guy I’ve seen since then who even comes close in terms of the vast array of tightly pitch clusters at his disposal.  And I don’t just mean pitches he CAN throw, I mean pitches he DOES throw (or else they wouldn’t be showing up on pitch-fx like this). It sounds like he’s already further along with the control and pitchability, but he’s also about 5mph behind those other guys.  And that’s likely to be a BIG difference.  So it should be pretty interesting to see how he progresses.  He’s got a (presumably) game-ready assortment of pitches to match some of the league’s best, gets ground balls by the bunches, and reputably already has great control and pitching instinct.  I’d be curious to see what the speed difference is like between his FB and secondary pitches, but if slowing down a change-up can work wonders for other guys, and if Lincecum can slow down his FB to dominate the league at 92mph with a complementary change-up… maybe Leake can do something pretty special with his heater at 91 and the assortment of secondary options.

    Thanks for a great article Derek.

  8. Derek Carty said...

    Thanks for the comments, Peter.  Leake’s change has been coming in at around 83 and his sinker 89.

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