St. Louis Cardinals: Contact Quality Against Mike Leake

Many writers are expecting a rebound season from Mike Leake in 2017 for the St. Louis Cardinals, citing bad luck as the source of his struggles last year. What does hitters’ contact quality against Leake reveal about his 2016 performance?

Mike Leake undeniably had a disappointing season for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016. Signed as a mid-rotation innings eater, Leake put up a career worst ERA of 4.69. Additionally, his 176.2 innings were his lowest total since 2011.

The amount of blame that is assignable to Leake is up for debate. For one, he battled shingles, which costed him a start or two. Additionally, he was backed by the seventh worst defense in the MLB by Defensive Runs Above Average. Whether the St. Louis Cardinals actually improved their defense this offseason is up for debate, but a better defensive team in 2017 would benefit Mike Leake.

Despite this, I think Mike Leake deserves more blame for his disappointing 2016 campaign. Previously, most attributed his high BABIP in 2016 to bad luck and bad defense. However, a deep look into batted ball data suggests Leake wasn’t unlucky; he just allowed batters to hit really well against him.

I previously dug into PITCHf/x and Statcast data and concluded Leake was basically unlucky. A few months ago, Brendan expanded on this idea. He pointed to Mike Leake’s peripheral stats as evidence that Leake had a better 2016 season than the results indicated. Below, I compare Leake’s 2016 stats to his career totals:

St. Louis Cardinals

Leake had a career best FIP of 3.83 in his first year with the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as a career low walk rate. Basically, for the measures the pitcher can control, 2016 Mike Leake was the best version of Mike Leake thus far in his career. His ERA suffered thanks to an extremely high BABIP and low strand rate (LOB%).

Most, including myself, generally have attributed this to bad luck and bad defense, and ended the conversation there. However, using data from the last five seasons, I’ve found that BABIP is negatively correlated with LOB%.

St. Louis Cardinals

Unsurprisingly, a higher BABIP leads to a worse LOB%. Using Leake’s 2016 BABIP against, we get an expected LOB% of 71.7%. While this is better than the 65.6% mark he posted, it’s still worse than his career average. Operating under the assumption that his struggles were mostly attributable to batted ball results, the next step is determining whether those poor results should actually be blamed on luck or Mike Leake.

Using data available via Baseball Savant, I binned every tracked batted ball in 2016 by exit velocity and launch angle. I then used that to calculate an expected BABIP (xBABIP), an expected batting average on contact (xBACON), an expected home runs (xHR), and expected slugging (xSLG).

This is best explained visually, so below is the exit velocity (EV) by launch angle (LA) matrix for BACON.

St. Louis Cardinals

The overall pattern is similar to what others have found. Red areas are where batted balls are most likely to go for hits, and blue areas are where batted balls are least likely to be hits. The blue area at medium exit velocities and fly ball launch angles is the batted ball donut hole. Essentially, these batted balls are generally lazy fly balls, while harder hit balls at those angles go for home runs and weaker hit balls at those angles fall in for bloop hits.

Assigning the 504 tracked batted balls against Leake to this matrix and others, I calculated the following expected stats and compared them with his actual batted ball stats.

St. Louis Cardinals

Based on this analysis, it looks like Mike Leake performed about as expected, based on hitters’ exit velocities and launch angles against him. If anything, Leake’s expected stats were slightly worse than his actual stats.

We can also look at BACON (and other stats) by graphing them against just exit velocity or just launch angle.

St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals

Again, notice the donut hole between 70 MPH and 90 MPH. By launch angle, the best range for hits (or worst, if you’re a pitcher) is around 10 to 15 degrees.

Equipped with this information, we can better assess exactly why Mike Leake struggled last year for the St. Louis Cardinals. His average exit velocity against was essentially flat from 2015 to 2016. However, his average launch angle against increased from 6.5 degrees to 7.7 degrees. While that jump doesn’t seem like much, it moves him closer to the BACON and BABIP launch angle peaks.

Further, binning Mike Leake’s average exit velocities and launch angles against provides more insight into his struggles.

St. Louis Cardinals

Leake was below average at generating batted balls in the lower BACON and BABIP exit velocity bins. He produced 7.8% fewer batted balls in the 70 to 95 MPH range than the league average. Additionally, he allowed 7.3% more batted balls in the 95+ MPH range, which have by far the highest BACON and BABIP.

Looking at binned launch angles reveals a similar problem. While the difference is not as drastic, Leake gave up slightly more balls than average between -5 and 25 degrees, the angles most likely to be hits. Additionally, while Leake generated more ground balls than average, he was barely better than average at generating grounders that are least likely to go for hits, those less than -15 degrees.

A better way to visualize this is with these graphics, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

St. Louis Cardinals

Here, you can easily see the spikes between -5 and 25 degrees, as well as the spike in hits at approximately ten degrees. He failed to generate many weak grounders below -20 degrees or pop ups above 50 degrees. The result: batted balls against Mike Leake were more likely to find the outfield grass for hits.

Unfortunately, his shingles case in August likely had little to do with his struggles. Leake’s average exit velocity against by week was approximately average or worse long before shingles hit.

St. Louis Cardinals

Another possible explanation is that the pitches which batters hit against Leake were better pitches to hit. Using heat maps available at Baseball Savant, I compared his 2015 batted balls to 2016 batted balls, broken out vs. RHH and LHH.

St. Louis Cardinals

There’s not much difference between 2015 and 2016 vs. RHH. I might argue that the concentration at the lowest part of the zone in 2016 was less than in 2015, but it would be difficult to quantify how much that small difference made. Against lefties, however, Leake left noticeably more pitches over the plate than he did in 2015.

Yet, by wOBA, Leake was only marginally worse in 2016 against lefties or righties than he has been over his career. So while location may have been an issue, it was not what broke Leake’s season.

Additionally, it’s hard to pinpoint any reasons for Leake’s struggles looking through PITCHf/x data. The movement on all his pitches last season was normal compared with his career. His release point was not significantly different, and his velocity remained steady. Furthermore, his spin rate on all his pitches was similar in 2016 and 2015.

The exit velocity and launch angle combinations of batted balls against Leake were the biggest drivers behind his lack of success. Hitters simply squared Leake up more often, and he didn’t generate many batted balls in the donut hole. There were plenty of balls that, if hit a little harder or a little softer, would have fallen in the donut hole, and would have yielded better results for Leake.

Whether these contact results are attributable to Leake or batted ball luck is difficult to determine. There were a few differences between 2015 and 2016 in pitch location and launch angles that might be a cause for concern, and that should be monitored going forward. Yet, the sample size is only one season. Even just a small difference in contact quality could mean improvement for Leake.

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The St. Louis Cardinals and fans must hope it was a string of bad luck over a relatively small sample size. I wouldn’t give up on Mike Leake just yet, but there are definitely concerns that his 2017 performance needs to address.

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