Just nine games into the 2017 season, there have been a lot of negatives surrounding the Cardinals. The defense has been shaky. There have been blunders on the base paths. The bullpen ERA sits a 7.86, and the offense has been nonexistent, save for two games.
One overwhelming positive has been Mike Leake. In two starts, Leake has pitched 15 innings and allowed just one earned run (the fact that his record is 1-1 shows how worthless pitchers wins are). In those two starts, he’s held lefties to a .233 wOBA, which is well below his career wOBA versus lefties.
He’s been more effective against lefthanders by utilizing two pitches more effectively – his changeup and his cutter. People think of Leake as a sinkerballer, and with good reason. He’s thrown his sinker over 43% of the time in his career. He’s used his cutter second-most, which is smart. It plays off the sinker in the sense that it’s velocity is similar (89.74 compared to 90.83) and moves the opposite direction.
His changeup has never been a go-to pitch for Leake. He threw it about 8% last year, which was near a career low. After two starts, changeups have made up 10% of his offerings. He’s been successful with it, too. While it hasn’t been a swing-and-miss pitch, changeups put in play have been ground balls 75% of the time.
The usefulness of Leake’s changeup was on display in the first inning of his start against Cincinnati. After getting a couple lineouts to start the game, former MVP Joey Votto stepped to the plate. Leake started him off the same way he starts off most hitters — with a 91.5 mph sinker for strike one.
The next pitch was an 84 mph changeup the floated away from the left handed hitting Votto. Votto, presumably looking for the harder sinker, was unable to stay back, and slapped a weak ground ball to Jhonny Peralta for the third out of the inning.
Leake’s change isn’t a swing and miss pitch, but it doesn’t have to be. When it’s well located, its a weak-contact inducing pitch. A good early count changeup, like the one to Votto, can allow Leake to get the quick outs he needs to go deep into starts.
Leake showed off another effective pitch to lefties against Washington, this time against Bryce Harper. He started Harper off with two sinkers at 91, the first for a strike and the second for a ball. He challenged the former MVP on the next pitch with a rare four-seem fastball, which Harper fouled off for strike two. Leake struck him out on the next pitch, a high and inside cutter, and stranded the tying run on third.
At first glance, Leake’s cutter doesn’t look like a good pitch. According to Brook’s baseball, Leake’s cutter has averaged only 0.02 inches of horizontal (glove side) movement in his career. If you isolate only the cutters he’s thrown in 2017, the movement is actually -0.32 inches, meaning the cutter is “backing up”, or moving arm side. That’s not what any pitcher is looking for.
What makes Leake’s cutter effective is the quality — and frequency — with which he throws his sinker. His sinker averages 8 inches of arm side run, and he throws it nearly half the time. Leake isn’t able to strikeout Harper because his cutter has exceptional movement, but because Harper is expecting the pitch to run back into the middle of the plate. Instead, it cuts in on him (or, more accurately, stays pretty strait) and Harper is unable to lay off, and he’s tied up for strike three.
Two pitches, both which play off the sinker. One is generates weak contact early in counts, the other can jam hitters looking for something slower with two strikes. Leake will need both of them to have more success against lefties in 2017.
Thanks for reading!