Saturday, December 26, 2015

Cardinals Plug Leake

Leake fills a hole in the Cardinals rotation (SI)
Mike Leake got a nice Christmas present this year--a five-year, $80 million contract from the St. Louis Cardinals.

When I saw those figures for the first time, my immediate reaction was shock; in what world is Mike Leake worth $80 million?

After all, Leake has been the very definition of average since debuting in 2010. He's never been an All-Star and his career ERA+ is 101. He's never won 15 games in a season, and only once has he exceeded 200 innings. He's a contact pitcher with one of the worst strikeout rates in the game, which makes him susceptible to the long ball. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs agree he's been worth roughly 1.8 wins above replacement per year over the past five seasons, when an average major league regular is typically worth close to two.

But since teams are currently paying about $8 million for one WAR on the open market, average major leaguers like Leake are worth $16 million a year. A five-year contract for a durable 28 year-old makes sense as well, since Leake figures to maintain his current level of production for the next half-decade. Even if he slips a bit in his early 30s, the cost of a win will be higher with inflation, meaning he should still be worth his salary.

Leake's one of baseball's most consistently effective starters, and that has value. Over the past three years, he's been worth 7.4 bWAR by averaging 200 innings with a 3.59 ERA and 3/1 K/uIBB (unintentional walk) ratio. Despite not missing many bats, he excels by keeping the ball on the ground with a 50.2 GB% for his career. While he's outproduced his FIP by 33 points, pitching in a friendlier home park with a better defense behind him should help him continue to do so, as should throwing to one of the game's best signal-callers in Yadier Molina.

Jeff Sullivan also pointed out that Leake is more than just a solid midrotation starter; his athleticism makes him one of the better hitting and fielding pitchers in the game. His glove and bat are capable of adding up to an extra win of value, elevating him a cut above your typical hurler.

In past years, Leake getting a John Lackey-type deal would have seemed ridiculous, but with so much money going to starting pitchers this offseason Leake's contract doesn't look crazy at all. Consider that Jeff Samardzija got the same number of years and $10 million more despite being three years older and having a more volatile track record than Leake. St. Louis preferred the latter, and based on Leake's superior career numbers and younger age they were right to do so.

After losing Lackey to the Cubs and Lance Lynn to injury, the Cardinals needed a starter. In Leake, they got one of the youngest and most reliable arms on the market at a reasonable cost, without sacrificing their top draft pick. If Leake stays healthy, this won't be an overpay at all. It might even be a bargain.

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