Mike Leake has made ten starts so far in 2015. He began the season very well. After seven games his ERA stood at 2.36 with two wins and one loss on his record. Then something flipped and his performance nosedived. Over his last three starts Leake’s ERA ballooned to 12.86 and he lost all three games. After allowing only 13 runs and six home runs in his first 50 innings, he allowed 20 runs and six home runs in his last 14 innings!

The day after that seventh start I wrote an article discussing the Reds’ starting pitchers. (Read it here: Evaluating the Reds’ Starting Rotation.) In the article I surmised that Leake’s hot start was primarily a product of lucky BABIP and Strand Rate stats, and I predicted that Leake’s ERA would steadily rise as the season progressed. I did NOT foresee that Leake would proceed to get his rear end handed to him in his next three games, all crushing defeats. Just so you know I am not bragging, I also predicted Jason Marquis would get better. Wrong.

Let’s make a chart so we can compare and contrast his good and bad periods:

Mike Leake 1st 7 Starts Last 3 Starts
Innings Pitched 49.2 14.0
Hits 36 27
Runs 13 20
Home Runs 6 6
Walks 12 8
Strikeouts 28 6
WHIP 0.97 2.50
ERA 2.36 12.86
FIP 4.26 9.54
xFIP 3.86 5.77
BABIP 0.203 0.389
Strand Rate 88.4% 56.4%

In the “first seven” period Leake was allowing less than a hit per inning. In the “last three” period he allowed nearly two hits per inning. Much of that can be blamed on batting average on balls in play (BABIP). League average BABIP is .292 yet Leake’s was .203 in the first seven and doubled to .389 in the last three. As discussed in the prior article, BABIP is out of the pitcher’s control and can vary wildly in small sample sizes. It has nothing to do with the skill of the pitcher, rather it is a product of the game environment and the vagaries of random variation. It is no surprise that Leake’s BABIP rose severely from the lucky .203 in the first seven, but it swung to the opposite extreme at an ungodly .389 in the last three. Moving forward, Leake’s BABIP is likely to be near .292 like it has been throughout his career (and pretty much every other pitcher’s career as well).

We can see a similar effect of luck with the Strand Rate. League average is 72%, yet Leake was very lucky in the first seven period and very unlucky in the last three period. Strand Rate is another factor that is largely if not completely out of a pitcher’s control. The Strand Rate is the rate at which baserunners allowed by a pitcher are left stranded on the bases. These runners are sometimes inherited by the bullpen. For example, if Leake allows two runners to reach base in the 6th inning of a game before he is replaced by another pitcher during that inning, if the reliever allows those runners to score it hurts Leake’s Strand Rate. It doesn’t matter how the runners score either, they could score on a base hit, a home run, a wild pitch or an error but they all count the same on his Strand Rate. Strand Rate is affected strongly by random variation just like BABIP. Moving forward we would expect Leake’s Strand Rate to even out in the 72% range.

Mike Leake 1st 7 Starts Last 3 Starts
Ground Ball % 53.9% 49.2%
HR/FB 14.6% 33.3%
HR/9 1.09 3.86

In the chart we can see a small decrease in Leake’s ground ball percentage, which may lead to a small bump in home runs allowed, but nothing like the huge bump we have seen. Leake’s home run per fly ball rate more than doubled. That is another sign of extreme bad luck, which is something that is not surprising when dealing with small sample sizes. Three games is definitely a small sample size, so is seven games. A league average HR/FB is 10%, whereas Mike Leake’s career average is 14.1% and that is what we should expect in the future, not the whopping 33.3% of the last three period.

Mike Leake 1st 7 Starts Last 3 Starts
K/9 5.07 3.86
BB/9 2.17 5.14
K/BB 2.33 0.75
K-BB% 8.3% -2.7%

So now we know that we don’t have to worry about the booming levels of base hits and home runs that Mike Leake has given up in the last three games. Those should not be a problem as the season rolls along. There are however some concerning factors. Leake’s strikeout rate continues to drop. His 4.81 K/9 and 12.7 K% are both career lows and way below league average. On top of that his 2.83 BB/9 and 7.5 BB% are both career worsts as well, but are league average overall. His 5.2 K-BB% is truly abysmal on the season. League average is 12% and his 5.2% is even below replacement level. You simply cannot succeed for any length of time with a K-BB% that terrible. In my opinion that is the most important pitching metric there is, and right now Mike Leake is one of the worst in baseball. Out of the 112 starting pitchers who qualify, Leake ranks 104th. That does not bode well for the rest of the season. Leake needs to get back to his career rate of 10.0% if he hopes to cash in with a big free agent contract this coming offseason. (Incidentally, Anthony DeSclafani ranks 95th on that list, Johnny Cueto ranks 19th and Michael Lorenzen would be dead last if he qualified.)

Mike Leake 1st 7 Starts Last 3 Starts
Velocity 90.6 mph 90.8 mph
Fastball % 45.6% 45.4%
Slider % 11.0% 11.2%
Cutter % 19.3% 26.7%
Curveball % 11.9% 8.4%
Changeup % 12.2% 8.4%

Here we can see that Leake’s velocity and mix of pitches remained the same in both periods. He did not suffer a drop in velocity that would indicate an injury. He did throw a few extra cutters in the bad period at the expense of some curves and changeups, but there is nothing here that points to a dropoff in performance. Generally Leake throws his slider and curve at about the same rate, but it is interesting that in the May 16th game (game #1 of the last three period), Leake threw 15 sliders and only 2 curveballs, and both of those curveballs were hit for home runs. Then in his next game on May 22nd he did the reverse, throwing 14 curveballs and only 4 sliders. Perhaps Leake was struggling for the right feel or motion on those pitches. After giving up the two long balls he abandoned the curve for the rest of the day, but in the next game he not only started throwing the curve again but actually featured it. Maybe he worked on it during his bullpen sessions and felt like he had it working again. In that next game he did not allow a hit on the curveball, although he did walk five batters in four innings with no strikeouts.

Almost every one of Leake’s peripheral and component stats are at the worst levels of his career.  His strikeouts are down and his walks are up. His 4.66 ERA is higher than his previous worst season of 4.58 in 2012. His 4.28 xFIP is his worst as well, higher than the 4.16 he yielded in his rookie 2010 season. His 4.81 K/9 is the worst of his career after setting a career best of 6.89 last year. His 2.83 BB/9 is still better than league average but is worse than every year except his rookie year. His overall .252 BABIP for the season is still very fortunate despite the beating he has taken lately. This comes as a disappointment to Reds fans like us, but imagine how worrisome it is for Mike himself. He is a free agent after this season and was looking at a potentially huge contract if his numbers had not taken their recent plunge. He literally has millions of dollars riding on every game he starts right now.

Conclusion and Prediction

So the takeaway is that Mike Leake’s basic underlying performance on the mound has not changed much. His luck has changed a LOT. He was very lucky in the first seven period, then very unlucky in the last three period. As the luck factor evens out and his BABIP, Strand Rate and HR/FB rates stabilize to his career norms, we can expect him to be a serviceable but below average major league pitcher. His peripheral stats for the season are trailing his career averages. By the end of the season his season stat line is probably going to look similar to this: 9 Wins, 13 Losses, 4.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 130 Strikeouts and 50 Walks in 195 innings.