ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Mike Leake was great again Wednesday night. He went seven innings, allowed two earned runs, scattered seven hits and didn’t walk anyone.
It was his third walk-less start and his fourth outing of at least seven innings. He’s now a perfect 8-for-8 in quality starts.
Leake has been so steady this year (even heading back to March) even the remarkable feels mundane. Perhaps that’s why he 29-year-old’s tremendous 2017 isn’t headlining water cooler talk and barroom banter. Maybe it’s because he’s so quiet and steady on the mound, he fades into the fabric of the games he dominates. He’s a quiet, boyish boxer, a pitching pugilist so deft, hitters don’t know they’ve been punched until they see the bruises.
Whatever the reason for the lack of adulation, Leake needs a mouthpiece. This should help.
He has the second-best ERA in baseball (2.03). Better than Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, better than Max Scherzer and, since he doesn’t ride dirt bikes, light years better than Madison Bumgarner.
He leads the NL in ERA+ (204) and has a WHIP of 0.99. He’s 4-2, but should be even better.
According to Baseball Reference, Leake has two lost wins, meaning he was in position for a win when he faced his last batter, but the game was blown by the bullpen.
Both of his defeats are categorized as “tough losses,” meaning he lost the game despite making a quality start. Example:
In his first outing of the year, Leake faced his old teammates on the Cincinnati Reds. He went eight innings, struck out six and gave up one run.
He took the loss because the Cardinals never scored.
On May 12, he went six innings and allowed two runs, but the Cardinals lost 3-2 to the Cubs and Leake took his second losing decision.
For stat heads, this white-hot start isn’t that surprising. Leake’s numbers last season were deceptive. It was the worst ERA of his career and he went 9-12. But in other areas, he’d never looked better. 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). He walked just 30 batters in 176.2 innings, the best rate he’s ever posted.
There was a lot of hidden success amongst the ugly stats.
Then, in spring, observers saw the pitcher those positive numbers promised. Leake told reporters he felt more in control and prepared than in any previous season.
“I feel like I’m at the most comfortable with the big leagues that I’ve been,” he said in Jupiter. From the first bullpen session, he showed his work. Everything was down, every pitch was precise. His sequences were diabolical, a product of trusting every pitch he threw with the utmost conviction.
At one point in exhibition play, Leake had faced 35 hitters and only 10 managed to get a ball out of the infield. He was in absolute control, and more importantly, so were the players behind him.
In large part, last season’s gap for Leake’s pitcher-centric numbers (say, FIP) and the over-arching stats (ERA, for instance) was due to what happened in the field.
The shakey St. Louis defense was krypton for contact pitchers, and Leake bore the brunt of their mistakes.
Through eight starts last year, he already had three unearned runs on his tab. This season, all 12 of his runs allowed have been earned.
Last year Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak spoke of the “plays not made” metric, another area in which Leake was victimized. These aren’t errors in the score book, but they have the same effect. Double plays where someone drops the exchange so it’s just a single out. Bad reads on ground balls into the outfield that result in an extra base. Missed relay men.
Those things extend innings and wear down pitchers. After awhile, they force guys like Leake, who aren’t power strikeout arms, into feeling like they need to pitch around contact, which moved them away from their strengths.
This season the gap is in the right direction. Leake still has the best FIP of his career (3.19), but his ERA is a run lower thanks to his defense, not the other way around. Hitters are batting 80 points worse on balls in play (.241 vs. .321 in 2016), a product of better luck to be sure, but also because the defenders are in the right place and are getting to more balls.
The result is the best possible version of the pitcher the Cardinals signed for five years, $80 million. He’s atop the NL with Cy-Young-like numbers and captaining a Cardinals rotation that was absent a dominant stopper during an early skid. He's been great every time he takes the mound. The closer Leake's stats get to reflecting his performance, the harder it's going to be to ignore. All aboard the bandwagon.