Mike Leake has an ERA under three and his batting average on balls in play is over .300. Is he a pickup?
There are a few other ways that a pitcher can be lucky, but even Leake’s strand rate (82.4%) is not terribly far from his career number (74.4%). And though he’s giving up fewer homers than you might expect (8.6% per fly ball), that number is not far from the league average (10.8%) either. He looks ownable even if a few homers bring a few baserunners in.
You might immediately think of Leake’s home park since his drop in homers allowed is a big part of his improvement. It’s true that his HR/FB at home is 15.9% for his career, and that he’s only given up homers on 11.3% of his fly balls away from home. But this year, his home HR/FB is only 14.6%… it’s his away HR/FB that has disappeared (2.5%). That shouldn’t last very long. Part of the package is where he’s played his away games this year — Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington aren’t all pitcher’s parks, but enough of them are — and part of it is just a small sample size blip. He’s still given up five homers in those games, so it can get worse.
But even with a couple more homers, Leake’s been better this year. He still has his trademarked package: control (5.2% walks, 6.1% career) and just enough strikeouts (17% strikeouts, 16% career) to make it work. It could be that Leake’s improvement has just come by putting together the best believable rates in each category. His strikeout rate is not at a career-high, but it’s right there. His walk rate is at a career low by a couple decimal points. His ground-ball rate is up a couple percentage points (51.9% this year, 49.3% career). None of these rates is out of line with his career, but showing all of them at once is a good way to be at your best.
Still, it’d be nice to see some sort of pitching mix or change in approach behind the numbers. And there is some. Mike Leake is using the four-seam even less (4.2% career, 3.2% this year according to BrooksBaseball.net), and has cut his slider usage in half (12% to 6%). Instead, he’s using his change (13%, up from 11%) and curve (11%, up from 8%) more often. The increased use of the sinker/two-seamer relative to his four-seam probably has helped his ground-ball rate a bit, and the increased use of the change and curve have probably helped him put up his career-best swinging strike rate.
His slider has been a negative pitch by pitch type values, so using that pitch less makes sense, but his change has been his worst pitch by that stat. And he’s getting whiffs on 5.6% of his changeups this year, so it’s not a great pitch. His percentage usage drops to 5% in two-strike counts, so it must be a setup pitch.
In any case, maybe a large, underlying shift in approach isn’t necessary here. None of Leake’s numbers are far out of line with what he’s done before, the 25-year-old is just showing all his best rates at the same time. Of course, with his muted strikeout upside and homer-helping home park, he’s coming up on some regression. But if he continues throwing his best swinging strike rate, along with his best walk rate and best ground-ball rate, he’ll be ownable in most leagues all year.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.