Everyone knows the Diamondbacks will be searching for pitching this offseason. That’s because they should be. Above average offense? Check. Above average defense? Check. Even with a few warts, the position players have the situation locked down for the most part. But the pitching staff, and the rotation in particular, is a different story. So it stands to reason that Arizona will aggressively pursue free agent starters.
One name that’s come up from CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman and, most recently, Nick Piecoro of AZ Central is free agent hurler Mike Leake. There are several things in Leake’s favor when it comes to the D-backs’ ability to sign him: he won’t break the bank, he’s coming off of another solid year and he induces a lot of ground balls, something that surely excites Arizona. But if we dig a little deeper, it becomes clear pretty quickly that Leake isn’t the pitcher needed in the desert.
In 2015, his aforementioned best season since being drafted back in 2009, the soon-to-be 28-year old posted a solid 3.70 ERA in 192 innings. It was his second consecutive season doing so as he logged the exact same ERA in 2014 over 214.1 innings. The year before, he clocked in with a 3.37 ERA over 191.1 innings. If you’re reading closely, you get the idea – he’s been consistently solid. Unfortunately, solid just might not be good enough, and despite the ERA’s, Leake might be a more risky gamble than it appears on first glance.
He’s a guy without premium stuff who makes his money on the margins. In the last three years, Leake’s best, he ranks 31st out of 132 qualified starters in terms of being hit hard and 104th in being hit softly. That’s not the most encouraging trend in the world. He is 20th in ground ball rate, his most attractive feature, but 10th in contact rate meaning that guys don’t swing and miss against him and put the ball in play all the time. When they do so, they often hit it hard. His 4.04, 3.88 and 4.20 FIP’s over the last three season suggest that he’s more average than his ERA would suggest. There maybe some merit in the notion that he’s a bit of FIP-beater due to all of the grounders, but expecting an ERA under 4.00 while making half of his starts at Chase Field seems precarious.
Leake has averaged just 2.0 WAR per season over his three best campaigns. On an inning-by-inning basis, that’s a slight regression from what Chase Anderson produced in 2015. While Leake may be more consistent from start to start, the cumulative effect is virtually the same. As the team needs a boost in production from the rotation, a pitcher who routinely strikes out less than six batters per nine just isn’t the caliber that’ll push them over the hump. The number of innings he can provide is nice, but they aren’t the kind of impact innings desired.
And that’s really the issue with Leake. He’s a good pitcher. But he’s not a clear upgrade over what the team has and he won’t push them closer to the 15 WAR estimation that they need from the rotation to compete. If Arizona were searching for #4 starters, Leake would make all of the sense in the world. But that’s not what they need. Although there’s money to spend, it’s surely not infinite and putting $12 million a year towards a pitcher who doesn’t have much, if any, room for error just isn’t a recipe for success. Mike Leake is a just fine starting pitcher, but he’s not what the Diamondbacks should be targeting this winter.
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