July 24, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Mike Leake (44) delivers a pitch against the San Francisco Giants during the first inning at AT

Reds reach bargain deal with Mike Leake


Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Meet Mike Leake, the Six Million Dollar Man.

On Friday, the Reds avoided arbitration with Leake, agreeing to a one year/$5.925 million contract to keep the 26 year-old pitcher under team control.

Years ago, when the bionic Lee Majors captured hearts as the Six Million Dollar Man, he seemed invincible. The slogan said, “We can rebuild him…we have the technology.” But in Cincinnati, no rebuild is necessary. If Leake can maintain the same mechanics, the same production as a season ago, the Reds will have secured a bargain better than Jim Harbaugh’s khaki pants.

According to various studies conducted by Fangraphs, the cost of a “win” continues to skyrocket in Major League Baseball. For each win above replacement (WAR), they estimate that teams are paying anywhere between $5 and $6 million. And you thought gas was expensive!

But thanks to Leake still living beneath his rookie contract, the Reds get a young commodity at less than market value. How much less? I’m glad you asked.

Leake enjoyed a coming-out in 2013, cementing himself as a key cog in the Red rotation. The counting stats were solid, as he finished with a record of 14-7, a 3.37 ERA, compiled 192 innings pitched, and walked only 2.2 hitters per nine innings. The season wasn’t sexy, but steady. His control and consistency helped the hit-or-miss Reds offense stay close to competitors all season.

The performance placed him above league average, including an ERA+ of 113, meaning that after one dismisses the hitter-friendly nature of Great American Ballpark, Leake performed 13% better than the average MLB pitcher. On Baseball-Reference (my preferred source for WAR), this secured him a WAR of 3.0; Fangraphs graded him more harshly at 1.6.

But either number represents a bargain for his latest contract. If the price range for a win exists somewhere between five and six million dollars, then the Six Million Dollar Man represents a coups for the Reds. Assume that Leake simply duplicates last year’s effort. By Baseball-Reference, he’d be worth around $15-21 million on the open market. And even on Fangraph’s much smaller projection, he’d hypothetically garner $8-11.2 million in a free-agent deal.

As much as we hate to turn players into numbers and bottom lines, that’s how front offices think and behave. So when the Reds see pitchers like Kyle Lohse and Jason Vargas pulling in deals of over $8 million per year, they have to look at their younger, more promising prospect and breathe a sigh of relief. For now, they have him on the cheap. And that helps the ballclub surround him with superior talent (in theory).

Even better news for the Cincinnati front office is that Leake looks poised to do even better than status quo, even better than projected.

For one, Leake is just now entering his age-26 season. Considering how quickly he was thrust into the majors, his growth as a pitcher and into his man-strength has happened before a national audience. He isn’t as seasoned as many hurlers that work out the kinks in the Minor Leagues. And historically, he’s entering the two-to-three-year stretch when pitchers hit their physical peak. If that coincides with health and his growth as a strategist, improvement likely will follow.

Second, last season’s surge doesn’t look like a statistical aberration. Batters facing Leake netted a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .289; considering that league average is .296, it doesn’t look like Leake got lucky. The only concern might be a huge dip in fly balls leaving the ballpark (always a concern in Great American). In 2012, 9.9% of Leake-induced flies reached the bleachers. That dipped to 7.7% in 2013. Glass half-full: his pitch placement and natural progression led to the steep drop. Glass-half empty: the hitter-friendly confines might take back some of those outs and send them over the wall this season. Time will tell.

But Leake, himself, should send a few more balls screaming into the gaps. Few pitchers garner much value with their hitting, but it wasn’t so long ago when Leake could be used as a pinch-hitter on his days off. In 2012, his .295 batting average stood as one of the best marks on the roster.

2013 played out much differently. He hit .190 in the same amount of plate appearances.

So which was the fluke? It might have been 2012; his .410 BABIP is higher than even a hitter like Joey Votto can sustain. But it also seems likely that Leake regains some of that pop and raises his average from last season. If so, an ability to get on base in front of Votto and Jay Bruce could add to his value.

2012 could have just been the beginning of a young pitcher’s rise.

Which means, a year from now, he might not come so cheap. The Reds understand this. Just look at the numbers being tossed around for Homer Bailey. But for 2014, the Six Million Dollar Man comes in at a bargain. The Reds reacted while his mechanics are still on clearance. If he far outplays the paycheck, they’ll hope they can revise that famous 1970s slogan.

“We can rebuild his contract. We have the funds.”

 

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