WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve all been sentimental here at Redleg Nation about Johnny Cueto being traded to Kansas City. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve personally drowned my sorrows as much as anyone. Reds fans everywhere are waxing poetic about Cueto, what he has meant to the club, and how he will go down in franchise history.
Mike Leake has now been traded away, as well, and I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t expect youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll see very many fond remembrances of LeakeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s time in Cincinnati, at least not in the usual print outlets. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s unfortunate. He isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t Cueto (who is?) but Leake has given Cincinnati fans some good years, and has contributed significantly to some of the best Reds teams in the last couple of decades.
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s my hope that weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll all remember fondly LeakeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s time with the Reds. To that end, letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s take a stroll down memory lane.
Mike Leake was the eighth overall selection in the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft, but before that, he was taken in the seventh round of the 2006 draft, by Oakland. Leake decided not to sign, and instead enrolled at Arizona State University to play college baseball.
As you might imagine, since he was drafted so highly, Leake had a decorated college career. He was a two-time Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year, two-time first team Academic Pac-10, and a first team All-American and Academic All-American in his final year. Leake was also named the College Baseball National Player of the Year in 2009 (by the college baseball writers).
As a junior, Leake went 16-1 with a 1.71 ERA, striking out 162 hitters in 142 innings. He distinguished himself at the plate, too, posting a slash line of .299/.402/.485 over his three-year college career. That ain’t bad, and it provided a glimpse of the all-around player and athlete the Reds would be obtaining.
Let’s flash back to long before Leake became a professional player. Back to 1999, when a young Mike Leake was playing 11 & under travel baseball. Cool story:
During a national youth tournament a decade ago in suffocating August heat, hard-throwing 11-year-old Stephen Strasburg melted down. A couple of hits, an error and a wild pitch caused emotions to well up and explode. His catcher, an undersized whippet named Mike Leake, tried unsuccessfully to console the pitcher. Strasburg left the sprawling sports complex in Shawnee, Kan., after being removed from the game, and went home to San Diego by mutual agreement of his parents and coaches.
Strasburg and Leake, of course, were both major league rookies in the same year. Leake continues to be “an undersized whippet.”
Leake debuted for the Reds on April 11, 2010, at the tender age of 22. That was the same day that Strasburg — the phenom and #1 overall pick in the same draft as Leake was taken — made his minor league debut (Aroldis Chapman made his debut in the minors on that day, as well). Leake, of course, skipped the minor leagues entirely, only the 21st player since 1965 (when the draft was instituted) to accomplish that feat. Leake was the first Red to do it since 1957, more than fifty years before, when Don Pavletich, Bobby Henrich, and Jay Hook made their debuts.
“I don’t really have nerves,” Leake told reporters. “I look at it as just another game. I guess, it really hasn’t sunk in yet Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ It will all hit me when I show up in a trivia question.”
Leake will be long-remembered for that bit of trivia, but that was the beginning of five and a half seasons as a mainstay in the Cincinnati Reds rotation. Of his 168 career appearances for the Reds, 163 of them have come as the starting pitcher.
In that debut, Leake didn’t exactly start out well. Facing the Cubs, Leake allowed Chicago to load the bases with no outs. The rookie then calmly got out of the inning without permitting a single run. Ultimately, he went 6.2 innings, allowing one run on four hits. Leake also picked up his first two major league hits, going 2-2 at the plate in that game.
Leake demonstrated maturity beyond his years and beyond his experience level from day one (with the possible exception of one boneheaded move). He would go on to become the first rookie pitcher in Reds history to be undefeated after ten big league starts.
I know we’ve all been lamenting the trade of Cueto, as I mentioned above, and everyone has delighted in recounting Cueto’s exploits and placing his name up there with the greatest pitchers who have ever toiled for this franchise.* We aren’t likely to mention Mike Leake’s name in quite the same way, but Leake has made his mark on Reds history in his own right.
*Plus, let’s not forget Cueto’s sweet Instagram account.
The Cincinnati Reds have been playing professional baseball games for many, many years. During those years, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve had a lot of pitchers. Do you know how many pitchers have started 160+ games for the Reds in the entire history of the franchise?
Mike Leake is tied (with Ewell Blackwell) for 30th all-time in Reds franchise history in games started. He’s actually 25th, if you just include the modern era (since 1901) Top 30? Top 25? you say. What’s the big deal?
Well, it is kind of a big deal. Since 1876, there have been 896 different pitchers take the mound for our Redlegs, from Eppa Rixey (2890.2 innings pitched) to Bill Powell, who threw 1/3 of an inning in 1913, giving up two hits, two walks, and two runs to put an end to his Reds — and major league — career. There have been 588 pitchers to start at least one game; Eppa Rixey (357) tops that list.
So think about that: almost 900 pitchers, nearly 600 starters wearing a Reds uniform…and Leake made more starts than 95% of them. It’s really hard to believe, since it seems like just yesterday that Leake was making his debut. Was he a Cy Young winner? No. Was he an All-Star? No, but he was good enough for long enough to be one of the cogs in a pretty good Reds pitching rotation for longer than most.
Over parts of six seasons with the Reds, Leake compiled a 62-47 record, with a 3.87 ERA and a 100 ERA+. So he was a roughly league-average pitcher for that span. That ain’t nuthin’, as they say, especially for a pitcher who is just now hitting his prime. Heck, there is plenty of value in an average major league pitcher, so that’s not a criticism at all.
Leake only ranks 42nd in all-time WAR for pitchers who were primarily starters for the Reds (55th among all pitchers, behind Elmer Dessens, Pete Harnisch, and Mat Latos). His total of 701 strikeouts is the 22nd-highest total in Reds history, and Leake is 31st in pitcher wins. He’s 35th in innings pitched.
As Marty Brennaman would probably tell you, that’s not elite production. But he’s been pretty darn good for longer than the vast majority of pitchers who have ever pitched for this club.
Leake’s time with the Reds coincides almost precisely with the biggest run of success that the Reds have experienced in the last two decades. Since making that debut in 2010, Leake has been an important member of two division champion teams, and another team that qualified for the playoffs via the wild card. The Reds won at least 90 games in three of his five full seasons. Leake was a big part of that.
At times, it seemed like Leake was celebrated for the production from his bat as much as his pitching. It’s true, Leake was a pretty good hitter, especially early in his career. In the Reds’ division-title winning season of 2010, Leake hit .333/.407/.354, for an OPS+ of 107. No wonder some were begging for manager Dusty Baker to put Leake in left field on occasion.
Two years later, when the Reds won the division again, Leake posted a slash line of .295/.306/.443 with two homers. His numbers have taken a dip over the last couple of seasons, but Leake’s career stats are .219/.243/.314 with 5 homers and 20 RBI over 394 plate appearances. That’s not just good for a pitcher, I think we’d all like to see Billy Hamilton posting numbers like that.*
*I kid, I kid.
A couple of days ago, Leake pitched his final game as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. I choose to remember him as he was on that day, which is to say: dominant.
Leake pitched eight brilliant shutout innings in a win over the Cardinals, for his fourth straight win. As I said at the time, we’re going to miss this guy when he’s gone.
And we will. He wasn’t the greatest pitcher, but he was a good one and he took the mound every fifth day, giving the Reds everything he had. I hate that we won’t get to see Leake pitch for the Reds as a 27, 28, 29-year old. There are signs that he’s coming into his own, and he could be a good little pitcher for the next few years. It would have been fun watching him climb up those Reds career charts that we looked at a moment ago.
Alas, the Reds felt like they had to trade him, and I think I probably agree that it was the right thing to do. Very soon, Leake was going to cost more, relative to his value, than a rebuilding club wanted to spend, and Cincinnati got a pretty good return on that trade with the Giants, in my opinion.
That doesn’t mean I have to like it. I am a fan of Mike Leake, and I never like to see guys like him head off into the sunset, on their way to pitch for another team. I won’t like seeing him pitch against the Reds for the next ten years. Leake is a homegrown Red, and it’s never easy to turn those guys loose.
But here we are. Leake will likely pitch well in San Francisco; he seems tailor-made for that ballpark. He’ll get a nice contract to pitch somewhere next year, and he deserves it. I’ll be rooting for him all the way.
Perhaps, in fifteen years or so, we’ll be here debating whether Mike Leake deserves induction into the Reds Hall of Fame. It’s a close call, and I don’t know where I’d come down on that question. But I know that I will always remember Leake’s time with the Reds very fondly; he was a good pitcher and a big contributor on some Reds teams that gave me lots of fun memories.
I hope you’ll remember him in the same way. Godspeed, Mike Leake. Good luck out there on the west coast, and beyond.