Updating the Top 100: Mike Leake

Mike Leake! - Dustin Bradford

Loving on Leake.

Nominally the fifth starter each of the four years he's spent in a Reds uniform, Mike Leake deserves a healthy amount of appreciation for his Cincinnati tenure thus far. It is no coincidence that Leake has been a part of some of the greatest rotations in franchise history. Not because he's leading the charge, mind you, but because if a guy like Leake is your 5th starter, then you've got yourself a staff that will give away very few games.

None of which is to say that Leake's game is flawless. His strikeout rate, marginal to begin with, has not improved since arriving on the scene in 2010. Similarly, when batters are able to get the ball in the air against Leake, there's a better than average chance that the ball will fly a long way. He's a classic groundball/contact pitcher, well suited to a team with a strong infield defense.

In 2013, whether by plan or by chance, Leake made the formula work, tying for the team lead in wins, posting a lower ERA than more celebrated teammates Arroyo and Bailey, and establishing a career high in innings pitched. It was, by far, his most valuable season with the club.

The timing, from the perspective of Mike Leake, could not have been better. Not only did the banner year come as the team prepares itself to make a decision on Bronson Arroyo's future, but it also arrives in advance of Leake's second season of arbitration eligibility. Having made just over $3 million in 2013, and having produced 3 wins above replacement for the season, a simple context-free calculator might suggest a big, big number coming Leake's way for 2014.

On the other hand, the team has made three visits to the postseason during Leake's career, and the pitcher has made just one playoff appearance, and that was an emergency start made necessary only by Johnny Cueto's unfortunate injury in 2012. This past October saw precisely zero serious suggestions that Leake would take the ball in a must-win game, and while we fans were not privy to the contingency roster discussions should the Reds have advanced to the NLDS, it is not remotely absurd to assume that Leake would have, again, been a postseason afterthought.

The unfortunate reality continues to be that the Reds operate under a finite budget, despite the expenditure growth trend in recent years. If I lean towards conservatism at each assumption point, I still end up with Leake being paid no less than $8 million next year, with the high end of the range likely closer to $11-12 million (note: using fWAR values provides significantly lower dollar ranges, which is nice). I've never once begrudged a player his salary (except for Eric Milton, of course), and even though I've never fully calibrated my internal scales from the days when eight figure payouts were, you know, a lot of money, I still have trouble envisioning a 2014 roster in which Mike Leake is allocated 10% of the payroll pie. The 5th starter role is not completely fungible, of course, but it should be a place where teams like the Reds are able to make smart marginal decisions. If I had to guess, I'd say the most likely outcome is a punt of sorts, in which Leake is signed to a 3 year contract at a lower per annum value than he might get via arbitration, since it's difficult to imagine this team being willing to turn over two rotation slots in one offseason.

I don't like that the most interesting commentary on Leake is on the cost-benefit analysis that the front office bean counters will soon undergo, and it likely does not reflect well on me, but what else is there to say? If there's a more predictable player for 2014, I haven't uncovered him. Innings per start, peripheral rates, and quality start percentages have all been remarkably consistent over Leake's career. Whether we gauge his next season as good or bad will be almost solely defined by whether his BABIP is above or below the .300 mark. It could be worse.

Leake holds a 42-29 record with the Reds, with a 3.99 ERA (ERA+ of 100). His consistent efforts have landed him on the honorable mention list for the first time, ranking #247 on the all-time list.

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