Last year, Mike Leake was little more than a footnote of a remarkable stat for the Reds. Cincinnati managed to make it through all 162 games of the season with the same five-man rotation intact. Leake was the fifth man in that rotation, and he did exactly what every manager realistically hopes his fifth starter will do: stayed healthy and ate up innings. He made 30 starts and tossed 179 nondescript innings, posting an 8-9 record, 4.58 ERA and 116 strikeouts.
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The Reds have not enjoyed the same clean bill of health this year, with Johnny Cueto on the DL for the third time. While Tony Cingrani receives a lot of attention, notably concerning the collective handwringing of the fantasy community that would like to see him remain a starter, Leake has been more than just a cog in an impressive machine this season. He has arguably been Cincinnati's most effective starter, and is their top-ranked fantasy pitcher in standard 5x5 leagues.
The most remarkable part of Leake's rise is that not a lot has changed since last year. His strikeout rate has crept up to 15.9 percent from 15.3 percent while his walk rate has inched from 5.4 percent down to 5 percent. His average fastball velocity is up a hair to 90.1 mph from 89.6 mph. He has a .274 BABIP and 79.4-percent strand rate, but neither of those numbers should cause any eyebrows to rise when considering a 16-start sample, especially when you consider his line-drive rate is just 17.9 percent. The one area in which Leake has made a marked improvement, though, is a big one. He's doing a much better job of keeping the ball in the park.
Leake's HR/FB ratio is just 8.2 percent, good for 26th in the league, and he's allowing 0.69 jacks per nine innings; last year, those numbers were 16.7 percent and 1.31 per nine innings. Is this a short-term phenomenon, or something Leake can keep up the rest of the season? Thanks to a change he has made to his pitch repertoire, I think it has lasting power.
Last year, Leake threw sliders 10 percent of the time. While it was an effective pitch for him, and remains so, when it was bad, it was really bad. His HR/FB ratio on sliders in 2012 was 23.8 percent. This year, he's throwing them just 5.8 percent of the time, and has increased his share of curveballs and changeups. He's throwing those two pitches a combined 28.7 percent of the time, and has yet to allow a home run on a curve or change.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Leake had a problem with the gopher ball on curves and changeups a year ago. However, both pitches have been much more effective this year. His ground-ball rates on the two pitches this year are 58.6 percent and 72.2 percent, respectively. Last year, they were 57.1 percent and 41.1 percent. If you're only getting grounders on two of every five changeups put in play, you probably have one of the worst changeups in the league. The fact that both have been so improved this year should give us confidence that he can continue to induce weak contact on both for the remainder of the season. And if he does, and keeps up his proclivity for both pitches, he can remain among the top-25 fantasy starters for 2013.
Starting Pitcher Barometer
• Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals -- Gonzalez had a monster June, going 2-0 with a 1.79 ERA, 2.88 FIP and 0.97 WHIP. Perhaps most importantly, after striking out seven or more batters in just three starts through May, he fanned seven in four of his six June starts, including 11 Phillies on June 19. He had a shaky April, but since the calendar turned to May, he has allowed more than two earned runs just once. He has looked more and more like his dominant self, especially the last five weeks.
• Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox -- Speaking of dominant Junes, Sale struck out 53 batters in 42.1 innings in the month, including double-digit whiffs in three of his last four starts. Since the White Sox are terrible, he went 0-5 in the month, but he had a 3.19 ERA, 2.32 FIP and 1.02 WHIP. He may not be earning many more wins, especially if the White Sox ship out Alex Rios and any of their other good relievers, but Sale's hot streak has him climbing the fantasy starting pitcher ranks.
• R.A. Dickey, Toronto Blue Jays -- Dickey had another great outing Monday, allowing two runs on six hits in seven innings, striking out four in a win over the Tigers. In his previous outing, he tossed a complete game shutout with six strikeouts. In that start, his knuckler sat at 77 mph, matching his velocity from last year. For most of this season, it has been down around 74 mph. If the velocity is here to stay, we may finally see the pitcher we saw for the majority of his 2012 Cy Young season. And if that's the case, both the Blue Jays and his fantasy owners will enjoy the second half of the season.
• Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds -- Cueto is back on the DL for the third time this season with right lat issues. Given that the same injury has placed him on the shelf again, his owners have to be concerned about his long-term health. There's a lot of time left in the regular season, but the Reds will need Cueto fully healthy if they're going to make a run this fall. They also have the sort of rotation depth that will allow them to be cautious with Cueto this time around. As such, his owners should plan on being without for a month or so.
• Scott Feldman, Chicago Cubs -- The predictable Feldman regression is in full swing. In his last four starts, he has surrendered 14 earned runs in 24.1 innings, allowed 21 hits and issued five free passes in that stretch. Feldman pitched way over his head through May, and while he'll be one of the most discussed pitchers leading up to the trade deadline, that has to do with his durability and affordability more than anything. He's still definitely worth owning in most mixed leagues, but he is by no means matchup-proof.