St. Louis Cardinals

Mike Leake is exactly who the Cardinals thought he was

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Mike Leake throws against the Nationals.
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Mike Leake throws against the Nationals. dholtmann@bnd.com

When somebody complains about Mike Leake and his five-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, I can’t help but think of Dennis Green, the late NFL coach who ranted famously after his team lost to the Chicago Bears.

“They are who we thought they were!” he said repeatedly, reminding all who listened that the Bears were much better than everybody but him gave them credit for.

And so is Leake, who suffered a tough-luck loss after allowing one run through eight innings in his first start of the season Friday against the Reds.

According to the simplest metrics — wins (9), losses (12) and ERA (4.69) — the Cardinals’ 28-year-old right-hander didn’t have a very good season in 2016.

Other key metrics, however, show he was the same guy who went 62-47 over six season in Cincinnati’s hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. And that’s the same guy the Cardinals thought he was when they brought him in to add depth to the rotation.

Here are the metrics that matter:

▪  Leake doesn’t give away free bases. He came to the Cardinals having surrendered just 2.4 walks per nine innings pitched, which is well below the league average. In 2016, though, he walked just 1.5 per nine innings, which was second best in the National League.

▪  Leake doesn’t give up the long ball. He allowed just 1.1 home runs per nine innings over six season at Great American Bandbox, which Bleacher Report rates as the major’s fifth best stadium for sluggers. In 2016, Leake allowed just one home run per nine innings, which was among the 10 lowest in baseball.

▪  Leake keeps the ball on the ground. His command in the lower half of the strike zone produced a 51.8 percent ground-ball rate, which statistically means fewer home runs, more double plays and fewer earned runs.

▪  Defense matters to a ground-ball pitcher like Leake, which explains his inflated ERA in 2016. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is an advanced stat that, in a nut shell, reconfigures a pitcher’s ERA by stripping out the role of defense. Leake’s FIP was almost a full run per nine innings lower than his ERA. That stands to reason, considering the subpar defense he had behind him last year; the Cardinals committed the fifth-most errors in baseball.

Leake is not the staff ace, and the Cardinals never expected him to be. He’s not even a No. 2. Or a No. 3. But he can have a better 2017 in St. Louis by simply being the pitcher he has consistently been — and if the manager Mike Matheny’s idea of improving the defense doesn’t involve playing Matt Adams in left field.

This is a hard sell to fans who think Leake’s $15 million-a-year deal is out of line. In baseball money, though, it’s market rate for a solid, consistent, and durable middle-of-the-rotation pitcher who can take the ball every five days and give his team a chance.

And that’s exactly who Mike Leake is.

BND Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

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