When Cubs catcher Willson Contreras homered off Mike Leake in the second inning Friday, it may have raised an eyebrow or two. Leake had allowed only one previous home run this season, coming in his win over the Braves last Sunday. Though he has consistently served up over 20 dingers per year in his career, it had been a rare occurrence during his hot start to 2017.
Then, Contreras teed off on him again in his next trip to the plate, in the fourth inning. People began wondering if last year’s Leake–the one with the 4.69 ERA producing only half a win above replacement for the full season–had made his way back to Busch Stadium and replaced the new guy with the shiny stats.
“He was ready to hit,” Leake said of Contreras. “Put a couple good swings on mistakes.”
Could there be any better indication of the collective conviction in Leake’s renaissance? A couple solo shots early means the start is considered a disappointment by the new standard for Leake’s performance. Beyond those two hiccups, Leake sailed once again to a quality start, his seventh in seven total starts this season. Six innings of two-run ball should win a lot of games, but the sudden quieting of the Cardinal bats turned Leake (4-2, 1.94 ERA) into a hard-luck loser in the 3-2 defeat to Chicago.
“He’s been so good all season long,” Mike Matheny said. “You’re looking at two solo shots get him in trouble. I like our chances, him going six innings and giving up two solo shots, and us doing something offensively. Just couldn’t get much going.”
When Leake lacked his sharp stuff last season, it seemed to end up burning him more often than not–that his career high in runs allowed for a season (101) came last year corroborates that view. Though Leake said he "wasn't hitting location consistently" Friday night, he managed to turn in yet another competitive outing.
John Mozeliak had to be expecting another side of Leake when he signed him to a five-year, $80 million contract in free agency before the 2016 season, but the lengthy and substantial financial commitment meant Leake would have every opportunity to offer a better second impression. Thus far in his sophomore campaign in St. Louis, Mo and the Cardinals have indeed seen another side of Leake–and still, it couldn’t have been a side they were expecting, considering how infrequently Leake has displayed this elite level of effectiveness in the past.
In only four other months during his seven-year big-league career has Leake posted a sub-2.00 ERA, as he did this April with a 1.35 mark. Leake has consistently said this spring was the best of any in his career with regard to the way he felt and performed. Since, he has allowed that positive momentum to carry over and develop into a performance pattern that could potentially land him on an All Star roster for the first time of his career.
“I was looking to continue what I was doing in spring,” Leake said Friday. “It’s not always easy to do. But I’m happy with what’s going on. I’m still trying to learn and get better. It’s going in a positive direction.”
Leake has gone from preferred whipping boy for fans who lamented Mozeliak’s perceived overpay to being the Cardinals' most reliable and consistent rotation-member. Even after Contreras’ two home runs inflated Leake’s ERA, his 1.94 mark leads all starting pitchers in the National League this season. His previously mentioned seven quality starts are tied for best in the NL.
The Mike Leake the Cardinals got last year wasn’t the same Mike Leake he had been for the entirety of his career. The way he’s pitching now, there’s a chance the same statement will apply to him for this season as well.