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Keeper Conundrum: Mike Leake

Posted By Chris Cwik On August 22, 2011 @ 9:15 am In Starting Pitchers | 6 Comments

Mike Leake is such a difficult player to evaluate. Due to the fact that he completely skipped the minor leagues during his debut season — and has only thrown 7 1/3 innings in the minors over his career — his career path can only be categorized as unique. While his performance in the majors are nothing short of amazing when you consider the circumstances, Leake is still learning on the job. He’s provided value to fantasy owners this season — and he’s still incredibly young for a player with his experience — but have his performances been strong enough to make him a keeper?

First off, it’s important to acknowledge just how unusual it is for a player to have Mike Leake’s career path. If Wikipedia is correct (and when is it ever wrong?), Ariel Prieto was the last pitcher to completely skip the minor leagues. That was in 1995; a clear sign that this type of thing doesn’t happen very often. Either way, the Cincinnati Reds decided Leake could handle the jump from college to the majors.

After he was drafted, Keith Law had this to say about the 22-year old:

Leake was one of the most polished pitchers in the 2009 draft, and between that and his lack of projection, he should reach the majors fairly soon…With four pitches that move, plus command and control, plus his being a good athlete, he’s a top-100 guy — and even if he tops out as a No. 3 starter, the fact that he’ll be in the majors this summer makes him a valuable asset.

That assessment seemed pretty spot on. In his first season, Leake held his own in the majors, but was nothing special. His strikeout rate was merely pedestrian, and his walk rate was a little higher than one would like from a player that racks up so few strikeouts. The real reason Leake was successful in his rookie year was likely his ability to keep the ball on the ground — though he did give up home runs at a poor rate. While his debut was nothing short of amazing considering his situation, his 4.68 FIP didn’t inspire many owners to keep him for his sophomore year.

Leake has improved quite a bit this season, however. His strikeout rate is up; his walk rate is down, and he’s still been able to induce ground balls at a decent rate. He seemed to have worked on his cutter this off-season, which has definitely contributed to his success this season. The fact that Leake has shown growth while learning on the fly is encouraging to his development as a pitcher. He’s not going to have an opportunity to dominate minor league hitters now that he’s established himself as a legitimate major league starter, so he going to have to make adjustments against the best hitters in the game.

Even with the improvements, Leake’s stats don’t scream “keeper.” Since we don’t have a history of minor league stats to help us predict Leake’s development going forward, we have to rely on his ability to continue to improve while in the majors. That’s why it’s extremely encouraging to see Leake has made improvements to his game this season — even if his performance hasn’t been elite just yet. Based on his improvement this season, his age and his lofty draft position; Leake is a player worth keeping going forward. Even if his ceiling isn’t much higher, Leake has already shown the ability to succeed in the majors despite his age. Those types of players tend to be good investments going forward.


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