The New Kid on the Block: Mike Leake

Here we are, 72 days into the season, and Nationals’ superstar prospect Stephen Strasburg has only started two games. Seven selections later in the 2009 Draft, the Reds selected Mike Leake, a polished starting pitcher out of Arizona State. Instead of giving Leake time to further develop in the minors, the Reds made Leake only the 20th player to bypass the minor leagues. Now he has a 2.68 ERA and no losses through 12 starts; Leake is clearly the best pitcher on their staff.

This off-season, all the chatter was about Stephen Strasburg and a Reds rookie pitcher. No, not Leake, but flamethrowing Cuban Aroldis Chapman. Leake went completely under the radar and stepped up in Spring Training to seize the final spot in the Cincinnati rotation over Chapman and Travis Wood.

Leake has never been a flashy player. He’s listed at 6’1″ but is really more like 5’11”, rarely hits higher then 92 on the radar, and induces lots of ground balls. Before the draft, a Reds scout went to see him pitch, trying to find a reason to dislike him, but he couldn’t. Leake is athletic, he has a wide arsenal of pitches, and he can pitch deep into games. Most importantly, he gets the job done.

Mike Leake's game as scrappy as his beard

Mike Leake's game as scrappy as his hair and beard

Leake spent three years Arizona State, and ended up as one of the most dominating pitchers in college. The first two years, his ERA stayed in the mid-3.00s and complied 24 wins and two saves. Nothing too special, batters hit .256 off him. But he made a big leap in his junior year. Leake started 18 games as a Sun Devil and won 16 of them. His ERA was more then halved, from 3.59 to 1.71. The opposition only hit .193 against him. His strikeout rate rocketed from 7.17 to 10.27 per nine innings. All of a sudden, Leake became the best college pitcher after Stephen Strasburg.

Leake’s dominance is even more surprising considering his competition. Whereas Strasburg pitched against the likes of Utah, New Mexico, and Wagner, Leake consistently played against the big boys in a major conference. Arizona State is one of the most stories college baseball programs, reaching 22 College World Series and winning five of them.

Whether it was lack of size or elite velocity, Leake fell into the Reds’ lap at #8 in the draft, and they found themselves a great young starting pitcher. Featuring a sinking fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup, Leake has been off to a historic season. He is the first Cincinnati pitcher ever – not just rookie – to go undefeated after 12 starts. Leake owns a 5-0 record and a 2.68 ERA, both a testament to his hard work and determination.

Not only has Leake stepped up to enter the record books, but he has also stepped up into the role of the Reds ace. Leake is the only Reds starter to have an ERA under 4.50, and he is nearly two runs below that! In eight out of twelve starts, he has given up two or less runs, and in seven starts he’s surrendered two or less walks. Leake has even stepped up at the plate, where he is hitting .400 through 31 trips to the plate.

By now, it is clear the Reds made the right decision when they chose Mike Leake for the final spot in the rotation over Chapman and Wood. The common thought on young pitchers is to give them plenty of time in the minors for two reasons: to give them more seasoning and to save money.

Last season, the Braves had a very good pitching prospect, Tommy Hanson. They wanted to prevent him from reaching Super Two Status, so they left him to dominate in the Minors for the first two months of the year. From that point on, Hanson won 13 games and was lights out for most of the year. The Braves finished the season 5 games out of the playoffs. It’s very conceivable that if Hanson had an extra 10-12 starts, the Braves would have made the playoffs. They chose money of winning.

One year later, the Braves were in the same situation. Jason Heyward, the next big thing, crushed major league pitching in spring training and deserved a spot on the 25-man Opening Day roster. Trying not to make the same mistake they made the year previous, Atlanta opted to let the young star play a full season in the majors. Now, they lead the NL East by 1.5 games over the Mets.

The Nationals were in a similar situation at the start of this season when dealing with Stephen Strasburg. They had a choice to make between winning and money. Keep Stephen Strasburg for an extra year at a lower cost or have two extra months of Strasburg. They chose the former, and look where they are now: 5.5 games out of the playoffs. There is no doubt that if the Nats had given Strasburg 12 extra starts over the likes of J.D. Martin and Luis Atilano, Washington could be atop the NL East. So, maybe having Strasburg for two months in his rookie season isn’t as valuable as he will be in 5 years, but winning now is more important then winning later.

So after letting their prized prospect just straight to the Bigs, the Reds can only be pleased with what they see. They have a future top-of-the-rotation stud in Leake and are perched atop the NL Central. Cincy made their choice between winning and money, and the decision clearly will make an impact on your season. So which do you want: the money, or the wins?

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