Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Leake: A Regression We Should Have Seen

As Mike Leake takes the mound tonight, we know that his last few outings have been discouraging. Leads me to this…

Why the drop in Leake’s performance?

What if I told you that this drop should have been, well, expected. It was even predicted.

On Rotographs, Fangraphs’ portion of its site as it relates to fantasy baseball, Eno Sarris authored a post in mid-June. He details some pertinent information relating to Leake’s early season success. A few numbers Sarris mentioned as they compare to how those numbers stand as of today.

Strand rate: In the Sarris piece, Leake’s strand rate was at 82.4%. Now, it sits at 76.3%, 14th in the NL.
Groundball rate: Sarris states that this was 51.9% at the time of his writing. As I have previously mentioned, this is now at 48.9%.
Walk rate: Sarris noted that this was 5.2%. It sits at 5.9% today, 16th in NL.
Strikeout rate: Sarris mentions this as 17%. Looking at his stats today, it’s down to 14.6%.

These numbers aren’t bad at all. A couple are quite good even as they stand today. As you can see, they’ve fallen off over the course of a couple of months.

What also shouldn’t be surprising is that most of these numbers are regressing back toward Leake’s career averages. Here are those career numbers along with Leake’s current numbers taken from above:

Strand rate: 73.8% (76.3%)
Groundball rate: 48.9% (48.9%)
Walk rate: 6.2% (5.9%)
Strikeout rate: 15.5% (14.6%)

In fact, even in mid-June, Sarris stated that a regression should be expected as comparing these numbers to those career averages.

We can see, as compared to his career numbers, that Leake was, and in some cases, still is, pitching above his norm for this season. We didn’t want to foresee the downfall that has since transpired. Were we so wrapped up in seeing a potential redefinition of Leake that we weren’t willing to admit that a regression was truly in the cards? In other words, we took this improvement for granted.

Leake is now in his fourth season, so we can peer at his numbers and say “he is what he is”. But in one area, is there a potentially disturbing trend?

Year OSwing% ZSwing% Swing% OContact% ZContact% Contact% Zone%
2010 26.5 % 60.8 % 42.9 % 62.2 % 91.2 % 81.8 % 47.8 %
2011 28.7 % 62.1 % 45.2 % 66.2 % 90.0 % 82.4 % 49.5 %
2012 29.4 % 60.6 % 44.7 % 69.7 % 91.6 % 84.2 % 48.9 %
2013 29.5 % 61.2 % 45.5 % 70.2 % 92.2 % 85.1 % 50.5 %
Avg 28.6 % 61.2 % 44.7 % 67.4 % 91.3 % 83.5 % 49.2 %

Should the slight uptick in the overall contact rate be a red flag? Considering his groundball rate is now in line with his career average, maybe not. Without that overpowering fastball (Leake’s fastball averages 91.1 and the sinker goes about 90.8), we would be less likely to be alarmed by this. We can only guess that this is as a possibility. Leake pitching more to contact? Entirely possible.

And swinging strikes have dipped as well.

Could it be Leake’s pitch selection? In the grand scheme of things, no. He does use his sinker as a first pitch over 50% of the time Brooks Baseball confirms this. To LHB, he uses it 55% of the time. When facing RHB, it goes up to 59%. Yes, you could think Leake’s use of the sinker is to set up other pitches such as his fastball and even his curve. But can we also determine that opposing hitters are sitting on that sinker?

With pitch usage now in the open, it deserves to be said Leake isn’t throwing that sinker as much as he did last season (38.98% for 2013 as compared to 42.16% in 2012). He does throw more curves and changeups, less fastballs, sliders and cutters, so the variety is there from an overall perspective.

It is curious to note that according to Fangraphs, the sinker isn’t even Leake’s most effective pitch. Weird, huh? A guy that creates as many groundballs as he does with that sinker (52.2% on groundballs per balls in play), yet it’s not his best?

We could also examine pitch speed, movement, and release point (which I have done) and quite frankly, you’d find nothing that would set off bells and whistles. Slight deviations, yes, but nothing more. Is this simply a matter of everything catching up to Leake?

Appears so in this case. Leake’s not doing anything differently. Throwing with the same speed, mixing up his pitches (aside from the first pitch of an AB), maintaining a consistent release point, and his pitches are moving (both vertical and horizontal) now as they did in the earlier parts of the season.

Sometimes, these instances happen whether we like them or not.

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