JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- Sometimes you eat the bear. Sometimes, as they say, the bear eats you. Mike Leake knows the feeling well.
The 29-year-old’s first season in St. Louis was complex and confusing; a pitcher improving in nearly every area of his game watching his results get worse.
By certain measures, it was the best season of Leake’s seven-year career. He had his best fielding independent ERA (3.83), his best strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.17) and his second highest strikeouts per nine innings (6.4).
Yet he lost 12 games and had the highest standard ERA of his career (4.69). He was eaten.
“It was just one of those seasons where it just seems like when things would not go in his direction, that’s kind of how they went. It just compounded on him at times,” manager Mike Matheny said. “There were many times where we saw that same efficiency but for whatever reason it was a different result as far as number of runs, number of hits, number of guys on base.”
Leake surrendered his share of hits, no doubt. But as a pitcher who makes hay on coaxing bad contact, he was also let down by a defense that at times looked lost. In addition to balls not reached, there were dozens of plays not made. Double plays turned into 6-4 fielder’s choices, bad reads turned into singles or worse. Those sort of things aren’t scored an error, but they extend innings and increase work.
This year he’s out to eat the bear.
“I think I can say this is the most mature I’ve felt in my whole career,” Leake said after his outing Friday. “Just the most knowledge I’ve gathered. I feel like I’m at the most comfortable with the big leagues that I’ve been.”
After a season where bad luck seemed to stalk him each time he went to the mound (hitters managed a .321 batting average on balls in play, also a career-worst), Leake’s 2017 spring performance has largely taken luck out of it.
“The last two outings, I haven’t even be able to get him into the stretch,” Matheny said. “Just watching his first [bullpen session], from his first pen this year compared to the first pen last year, there was just a crispness to it. He was putting the ball exactly where he wanted to, it seemed like, right from the start [of camp]. That’s the only way you have these kind of outings.”
Friday’s start was 41 pitches over four innings. Leake faced one more batter than the minimum, his solitary mistake coming in the form of a hung curveball to Bryce Harper. Nearly everything else was right where he wanted it: on the ground. He got eight groundouts (six to Jhonny Peralta) Friday, par for the course this spring:
Nine up, nine down for #Cardinals Leake. This spring, he's faced 35 batters and 25 of them have failed to get the ball out of the infield.— Derrick Goold (@dgoold) March 10, 2017
When plays are made, this is what Mike Leake looks like.
It could have been tempting for him to move toward strikeouts and away from trusting gloves not attached to his own hand after last year, but he did not waver. He believes better results are coming.
“We have capable infielders who can make every play. We don’t have a bad infielder. We have a good infield. Maybe not the best range, but we have a very solid infield that can carry us,” he said.
A solid infield should be enough, especially if he is able to make the ball shimmy and slide the way he has this spring. Hitters in March are always a step slow, but Leake’s success hasn’t been born of slow swings. His movement and location are good enough to play in any month of the season at the moment.
“If you know what you’re doing right, then I think it’s fairly simple to repeat. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, then it’s not easy,” he said. “I have a pretty good idea right now of what I’m doing.”
Perhaps the bear should be nervous.