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St. Louis Cardinals: With Mike Leake, Something Has to Give

Mike Leake's performance is big for the Cardinals

Remember back in April, when Mike Leake was an early (very early) favorite for the Cy Young Award? Well, that was a long, looong time ago. He had a phenomenal start, then leveled off to be the pitcher we expected him to be for a couple months, and has now come crashing down. It’s not pretty folks.

I must say, the rotation is starting to look concerning. Leake has been pitching poorly for a while and Adam Wainwright certainly looked compromised in his past two outings. I’m not too concerned with Lance Lynn out pitching his peripherals, he’s done it all year, and even with Michael Wacha regressing a bit, he still gives you solid performance with upside to dominate. Therein lies my issue with Leake. He is not keeping you in the game and, at this point, his upside is a quality start AT BEST. Leake has just 2 quality starts in his past 8 games. With Wainwright, he’s shown the ability to will himself to success even with diminished stuff, so maybe he stabilizes. But if not, and with the way Leake is throwing, then 2/5 of the rotation is questionable as you enter a tight division race. Something has to give.

A Tired Tale

Leake himself said that he was dealing with strength issues recently. Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com (@langoschmlb), reported this on July 20th:

“I’m sure it is still partly affecting where I am today,” Leake said of last year’s illness. “All I know is my body feels different every start. I try to do the best I can with what I’m given each day. It’s a matter of getting these kinks worked out and being able to get the strength back.”

It doesn’t appear that there has been any improvement. It might be time for a DL stint, even just to give him a week or two of rest. Perhaps regained strength could lead to a bounce back in September.

Trending Down

ERA/WHIP

Here’s what Mike Leake has been doing recently: 63 H’s 12 BB’s, 25 K’s, 36 R/27 ER in just 38 IP since 7/5. That simply isn’t cutting it. While the recent regression is dramatic, the season long decline in performance is nothing new for Leake. This has been a trend during his career overall. Here are the ERA and WHIP, by month this year compared to his career:

Mike Leake ERA + WHIP (By Month)
Career ERA/WHIP 2017 ERA/WHIP
April/ Mar 3.93 1.22 1.35 0.99
May 3.21 1.216 3.09 0.886
June 3.58 1.21 4.30 1.354
July 3.92 1.342 4.76 1.941
August 5.04 1.415 8.80 2.022
Sep/ Oct 4.70 1.342

You can see the decline in the numbers as the year goes along, and no, August 2017 is not a typo. I’m not sure exactly how much to read into this though, as his bout with shingles in 2016 and the awful numbers this season are baked into it, but it is certainly not encouraging.

Velocity

I also looked for some signs of fatigue this season, because of the report from late July. First, I looked at velocity. It has fallen gradually over the course of the year, so I’ll just give you the quick hit from his high point in April to now (courtesy of Brooks Baseball). His 4-seam fastball, slider, and curveball have all lost about 1 mph since April. However, there has been greater loss in velocity for his sinker, change-up, and cutter.  His sinker has gone from 91.36 to 89.69 in July (1.67 drop), his change-up has gone from 86.13 to 83.60 in August (2.53 drop), and his cutter has gone from 90.12 to 88.67 in July (1.45 drop).

Now his hard pitches — the 4-seam, sinker, and cutter — have all seen a slight uptick so far in August, but I would speculate that he may be overthrowing them a bit when he struggles. Overall, there has been a drop in velocity across the board, which is a sign of fatigue. And for a pitcher with below average velocity anyway, even a modest drop serves to make him easier to hit.

Release Point/Grooved Pitches

A drop in release point could be more evidence of fatigue. It could also lead to a flatter, less sharp sinker, which becomes much easier to hit, and hit well. Here is a look at his vertical release point this season. We can see clear drop in his release point.

Mike Leake has seen a drop in release point

I looked into the movement on his pitches and nothing stood out. However, it’s tough to look at a graph and truly understand the movement. For instance, a good sinker will have a sharp, late break downward. A poor one may have a more gradual break that just floats/drifts, yet the vertical drop ends up being the same, despite the pitches being far apart in effectiveness. I can’t say that this is the case with Leake’s pitches, but it is a theory. He is, however, grooving more pitches, especially his curveball and 4-seamer, both of which he has been using more often lately. Here’s the chart:

Mike Leake is grooving more pitches lately

This may be a case of him throwing more “get-me-over” pitches as he struggles with command. A loss of command is often tied to tired legs/drifting mechanics. Overall, I would say that fatigue is playing into Leake’s struggles. So why keep putting him out there?

There Are Alternatives

After Tuesday’s trouncing, Mike Matheny defended his decision to stick with Leake (too long) by stating that he is always one pitch away from an inning-ending double play. Here’s the thing though, at least recently, Leake is not a pitch away. Over his past 4 starts, hitters are batting .476 against Leake with RISP. Yowza! Matheny’s choice in Boston was to insert Matt Bowman, another sinker-baller, hoping that he was also one pitch away from a double play. Matheny loves banking on double plays, see: Seth Maness. That’s a poor strategy. There were better alternatives on Tuesday, but that’s a completely different debate.

Going forward there are options, and it may be time for the Front Office to intervene. Luke Weaver is the most obvious alternative. He has a 2.55 ERA in 77.2 innings for Memphis this year, and had a nice turn (3.77 in 14.1 IP) with the big club already this year. If the organization doesn’t think Weaver can pitch better than the 8+ ERA that Leake has given lately, then he isn’t the prospect they claim he is. Beyond Weaver, John Gant has a 4.07 ERA in 92 innings at Memphis and has major league experience, or they could turn to Jack Flaherty (2.86 in 66 IP at MEM) a bit earlier than they planned to. These guys won’t get the call over Weaver, but could come into play should Wainwright also falter.

Regardless, just like it no longer made sense to run an underperforming Piscotty out there, it no longer makes sense to keep pitching this version of Leake when absolutely every game matters. I want Leake to bounce back, he is a key to the team’s success, and I have preached about his value in the past. But something has to change in the near-term. Give the man a rest and give your team a better chance to win every fifth game.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter for more Cards talk.

Rusty Groppel

I’m a diehard Cardinals fan that feels privileged to write about his favorite team in this corner of cyberspace. I’m also the bass player for the best damn band in the 618, Tanglefoot. Check us out some time.

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