Scouting Reds Pitchers: Mike Leake

Finally, we turn our attention to Mike Leake.  Leake was in the conversation for rookie of the year with his brilliant first half last season, but as the summer went on he seemed to lose steam.  Ultimately, he was shut down for the final month of the season.  He enters spring training as the most likely of the six contenders to start in AAA, but is by no means out of the picture yet. 

Pitches

Mike_leake_pitches_medium

Leake basically has five pitches, with an occasional four-seamer tossed in for good measure.  On the left side of the plot, you see his sinker, which is his most-used pitch and is a good one (see below).  He also has a change-up.  You can see that the two pitches have almost the exact same break--even considering the extra drop due to the slower speed of the change-up.  I have to think they are very difficult to tell apart.

Across the top of the plot you see his cutters, and then over to his sliders (which seem to include a number of pitches misclassified as curve-balls) and his curve ball.  You do see a small number of four-seam fastballs in his plot, which Leake seems to mix in on occasion.

Velocity

Mike_leake_velocity_medium

Leake is not a hard thrower.  His sinker averaged 88.5 mph last year, and he'll reach 92 or so with his four-seamer when he shows it.  This probably limits his ceiling a bit.  But he does have a good complement of pitches.  His change-up leaves his hand averaging 82.5 mph, and so while it may break in almost exactly the same manner as the sinker, it only runs about 6 mph slower.  The slider is about dead-on 80 mph, and the curve ball (the true curve) is a mid-70's pitch.

Outcomes

As it was in the prior pieces, while the above graphs only use one month of data to aide readability, everything from this point on uses the full year (or partial year, in Leake's case) of data.

Pitch Use% Strike% GB% Whiff% LgWhiff%
Four Seamer 4% 52% 56% 7% 6%
Sinker 46% 63% 55% 3% 5%
Cutter 12% 56% 55% 4% 8%
Slider 16% 64% 50% 19% 14%
Curve 9% 64% 45% 7% 12%
Change-Up 12% 67% 34% 17% 13%

Ground balls.  That's Mike Leake's calling card, posting a 50.2% ground ball rate last year.  And you can see where's it's coming from: his sinker, cutter, and slider all induce ground balls on 50% or more of balls hit into play.

What Leake generally has not been thus far is a strikeout guy.  But looking at the data, I'm pretty impressed.  While his fastballs (sinker & cutter) may not be good swing-and-miss pitches, his slider and change-up look very impressive.  The slider, in particular, surprised me, because pre-draft reports were that the curve was his best pitch along with his sinker.  At least for those pitches that were actually classified as sliders, he gets fantastic whiff %'s.  Despite a good number of sliders being misclassified as curve-balls, the curve was his least-used pitch (aside from the four-seamer).  I'd guess he only throws his curve about 5% of the time, and with not particularly good results.  It seems more like a show pitch than anything else.

His change-up, which as discussed above looks almost indistinguishable from his sinker by break except that it arrives 6 mph slower, also induces whiffs at a very good rate.  Along with the slider, the change-up looks like his best put-away pitche, at least based on this sample.  I hesitate to try to recommend something--as I've said several times, I really have no idea what I'm doing here--but given his very low strikeout rate last year (5.9 k/9), it seems to me that increased usage of those two pitches might be appropriate.  Speaking of usage, let's look at how he does use them.

Approach

vs. RHB Opening Pitch Two Strikes Full Count Behind
Four Seamer 3% 6% 14% 17%
Sinker 55% 34% 30% 67%
Cutter 5% 6% 14%
Slider 19% 45% 33% 8%
Curve 11% 3% 2%
Change-Up 6% 6% 7%

To start off a right-handed hitter, Leake seems to favor the sinker, slider, and curve.  The curve is rarely used except to start off a hitter, which makes sense--they will likely be sitting on a sinker or slider, and the curve--while not a great pitch--can be something he can use to get them to take a called first strike.  He did deliver it as a strike more than any other pitch last year.

With two strikes, he increases his usage of the slider tremendously, throwing it almost 50% of the time.  That's his best weapon against a right-handed hitter--and he knows it!  I don't see how he could throw it much more often in those situations, frankly.

With a full count, the main thing we see is increased usage of his cutter (and his four-seamer, interestingly).  Looking at other counts, it looks like he primarily will use the cutter when behind in the count, despite the fact that he threw it for strikes only 56% of the time last year.  Maybe he nibbles with it and tries to get them to chase it outside?  You'd think he'd be more likely to do this when ahead in the count.  But the guy usually can throw strikes, so perhaps he's trying to fool someone who is sitting on the sinker in that count...?  He does not throw the cutter in a 3-0 count, which is consistent with the idea that he cannot always locate the it well.

Generally speaking, against righties, he throws the change-up only rarely.

vs. LHB Opening Pitch Two Strikes Full Count Behind
Four Seamer 2% 6% 2%
Sinker 51% 44% 46% 92%
Cutter 17% 9% 2%
Slider 1% 24% 27%
Curve 16% 2% 5%
Change-Up 12% 14% 15%

 

As you might expect, it's against opposite-handed hitters where you see the change-up most often used.  That said, he doesn't seem to vary its usage much throughout the count.  I'm surprised he doesn't use it more.

Again, when starting off a hitter, Leake will often use his curve, but also his cutter against lefties.  When he is trying to put away a lefty, however he does use his change-up, but still relies heavily on his slider.  It's a good pitch, but I'd be interested to ask him why he doesn't use his change-up more in 0-2 and 1-2 counts against left-handers.  Sliders tend to have fairly large platoon splits, whereas change-ups do not.  He treats full counts in much the same way as he does when he's ahead in the count, at least in terms of pitch selection.

If he got behind you in a 3-0 count last year, and you were a left-hander, he always--always--threw a sinker.  Or he intentionally walked you.

Conclusions

Mike Leake's an exciting young pitcher.  He has good weapons against both right- and left-handers, and from an outsider's perspective (and someone who really doesn't know anything), I think he might have an untapped potential weapon against left-handed hitters.  The main thing I'd be excited to see from him would be an increase in his strikeout rate this year (if/when he does pitch in the majors).  From this perspective, I think starting in the minors might be a good idea.  He could, for example, use the time to focus on honing his approach a bit, and seeing what he can do to increase his strikeout rate.


At the same time, I might be making the classic fallacy of focusing on what a pitcher doesn't do instead of focusing on what he does do well.  And what he does do well is induce ground balls.  With the Reds' infield defense being what it is--outstanding, especially if Janish plays--that's a great recipe for continued success.

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