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Updating the Top 100: Mike Leake

In which context reveals just what a biased fan you are.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Context is a funny and important thing, no?  Mike Leake, a pitcher, is elite in roughly zero of the skills typically associated with his position group, but is known as an outstanding hitter.  This is despite having fewer than 300 career at-bats at the major league level and having a career OPS+ that Zack Cozart's OPS+ in 2014.  None of this meant to disparage Leake or his most favorable relative attribute, but just to point out how much context shapes the narrative.

A more interesting topic, to me, is found in comparing Leake to his teammate and counterpart, Homer Bailey.  Both have only played with the Reds.  Leake has thrown just under 900 innings, Bailey just under 1,000.  Leake has an ERA+ of 99, Bailey 96.  Their win totals are similar (58 - 53, in favor of Homer).  Given the order in which these articles appear, it should be apparent that I rank Leake ahead of Bailey.  Leake's value as a hitter and his overall consistency/durability play a factor.  Your mileage may vary, but under any reasonable standard, these two have been remarkably similar players in value.

I don't necessarily have my finger on the pulse of an entire fanbase, but it certainly seems to me that one of these players (Bailey) is viewed mostly as a disappointment, while the other (Leake) is perceived altogether differently.

To continue the point, both players were first-round draft selections, and top-ten selections at that.  Both players were ranked on the notable top prospect lists prior to debuting in the majors, although Bailey was given an elite, top-ten prospect status that Leake never was.

Another note of difference, perhaps unfairly colored by my imperfect perception of other people's perceptions: Homer Bailey is nearly two years older than Leake, but is perceived to have greater development potential than Leake.

Let's point out the obvious.  Homer Bailey has better pure stuff than Mike Leake has, had, or ever will have.  This is presumably self-evident.  Another point of presumption: at least some of the differences in how the two pitchers are perceived stems from arbitrary labels (#5 starter vs. potential ace) which have absolutely no bearing on the relative value of the players.  Also, for those of you old enough to remember the last time the Reds participated in an actual postseason series, Bailey was entrenched as part of the rotation; Leake was an afterthought, to be retrieved only in case of emergency.

This write-up didn't set out to be a Leake v. Bailey tale of the tape breakdown, but it's ended up that way a bit.  I'm not resolved to bash Homer Bailey for his shortcomings, because I have lingering hope that he will breakthrough.  In the meantime, it's worth noting that Mike Leake has just made a significant jump in his strikeout rate (5.7 K/9 in 2013 to 6.9 in 2014) and has thrown down a 214 IP season (higher than Bailey's career high, by the way).  I feel confident in saying that Leake will never be the staff ace, but he's more than the lovable underdog (Mike Leake!).  A few years ago, I made the argument that Leake was an excellent trade candidate because we had likely seen the best from him we were ever going to.  I was wrong: he's a rock, and a solid component of the rotation.  The type of pitcher he is subjects him to a bit more of the bouncing-ball volatility than we'd probably like to see, but that also allows for a Arroyo '06-esque season at some point.  I'm looking forward to it.

In 147 appearances for the Reds, Mike Leake has thrown 891 innings, posted a 53-42 record, and logged an ERA of 3.92 (ERA+ = 99).  He moves up from #247 to #194 on the all-time franchise list.