Leake's improvement no coincidence

Cardinals starter feeling more confidence in all pitches

Leake's improvement no coincidence

WASHINGTON -- Though it wasn't necessarily the season that Mike Leake envisioned upon signing a five-year, $80 million contract with the Cardinals, there were plenty of figures to suggest that things weren't entirely as they seemed for him in 2016.

Leake's strikeout rate (6.4 per nine innings) was up and his Fielding Independent Pitching (3.83) was down. That latter mark, in fact, represented a career best. A porous defense and a .318 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) had inflated some of his other season numbers.

But Leake hung on to the indicators that suggested coming success, and following a Spring Training that he described as the best of his career, he has enjoyed as strong a start to the season as any pitcher in baseball.

After twirling seven scoreless innings in a win over the Nationals on Wednesday, Leake has allowed one run over 15 innings. He's walked one, struck out 13 and scattered 10 hits.

Leake's strong performance

"He looks more mature to me," manager Mike Matheny said, borrowing an adjective that Leake used to describe himself in spring. "He just looks better. He's impressive with how he's putting every pitch he wants to where he wants to and the movement and the velocity."

While a small sample size, certainly, there is evidence to suggest it's not a fluke.

Over his 15 innings, Leake, according to Statcast™, has allowed only one barreled ball, defined as a ball put in play that, in terms of exit velocity and launch angle, has historically led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. For reference, just once in his 30 starts last season did he allow no more than one barreled ball in a start.

Furthermore, Statcast™ calculates Leake's average exit velocity at 87.2 mph on 39 balls put in play this season. That's an improvement of more than 2 mph from both 2015 and '16. In the simplest terms, it's confirmation that he's not allowing as much hard contact.

"Even in Spring Training, you could tell he looked sharper," said Jedd Gyorko, who played third base behind Leake on Wednesday. "I think he's throwing the ball where he wants to with a lot more accuracy. And any time that he can cut it and sink it at about the same speed, it's going to be tough on hitters."

Washington manager Dusty Baker, who managed Leake with Cincinnati from 2010-13, had a similar take after watching him handcuff the Nats' offense.

Leake fans Werth

"My good friend Bobby Welch was [Leake's] coach at Arizona State," Baker said. "Welchie used to tell him all the time, 'Cheese at the knees with movement.' And that's what he was doing [Wednesday]. He was splitting the plate, more like a left-handed pitcher, with the cutter going one way and the sinker going the other way."

The movement Leake is getting on his pitches has contributed to this renaissance, but so too has the expanded repertoire. He threw five pitches at least seven times each on Wednesday.

The increase options should make Leake more effective the second and third times going through an order. Last season, batters hit .333/.366/.578 in their third plate appearance against him in a game.

"The last few years have been grinding years," Leake said. "I'm still working on all of [my pitches]. But at least they're coming around and feeling good coming out of the hand. I feel like I have confidence in all of my pitches right now."

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.