The Houston Astros are in search mode for a starter, and Mike Leake‘s name has been rumored to be on the radar.
Well, according to a recent report from MLB Trade Rumors, the former Cincinnati Red and San Francisco Giant just may be a fit for the Houston Astros. He would, in theory, fill a need in the rotation as the front office deals with the repercussions of the recent trade with the Philadelphia Phillies that saw the team’s starting pitching depth drained.
And with no draft pick compensation hanging over Leake like a pesky fog, he could be an interesting option for general manager Jeff Luhnow and the front office to consider as the pitching market settles.
But the multi-million dollar question is how good of a fit would he be in Houston? Leake for his career has been considered a proven major league pitcher after starting at least 22 games per season since his debut with the Reds in 2010. He has won at least 11 games in four of his six major league seasons. And though he has never really possessed a stellar ERA or FIP traditionally his xFIP stays around the 3.49 to 3.93 mark each season since 2011. In short, he has been unspectacular but solid.
One plus though is that he is only 28-years old, which means he should just be entering his prime. This thought by itself may entice any franchise to offer Leake a hefty contract, which seems to be the going rate for any free agent pitcher.
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And one statistic that could help Leake’s cause with the Astros is his ground-ball percentage. In 2015, the right-hander finished 15th out of all qualified starters in terms of ground-ball percentage (51.8%). And considering what type of ballpark that Minute Maid is then adding a pitcher with such strong ground-ball tendencies would make sense at first glance. After all, Dallas Keuchel was ranked second in ground-ball percentage in 2015 (66.1%), and we all witnessed what kind of success he has had the past two seasons.
Like Keuchel, Leake has also struggled at times with his HR/FB ratio (13.8% in 2015). However, at the end of the day, both pitchers are different in many regards. Strikeouts, for instance, is an area where the similarities stop. While Keuchel has been able to generate strikeouts at a respectable rate, 23.7 K% in 2015, Leake hasn’t been quite as impressive with a 15.3 K% during the same time span. And this isn’t likely to improve considering that his best pitches, the cut fastball, and sinker, average around the high eighties to low nineties in terms of velocity.
There are also other pressing issues that may make the Astros think twice about adding a pitcher who just finished his age-27 season.
Hard hit percentage from batted balls could be one concern. Last season, Leake finished 31st in hard hit percentage with 28.5% out of all qualified starters. Not great, but not terribly alarming. However, the Astros consensus top two starters, Collin McHugh and Keuchel, respectively finished 69th and 77th in the same category. So that may not be an attribute the front office is keen on adding to the staff. In fact, Leake averaged an exit velocity of at least 89.54 MPH up to 99.33 MPH throughout various parts of the strike zone in 2015, which is clearly not an issue of the same level with McHugh and Keuchel.
Another cause for hesitation from any prospective suitor should be the high percentage of contact made from Leake’s pitches. Even though he generates plenty of ground-balls, anytime someone leads all qualified starters in total contact percentage (91.7%), and then that could be construed as a troubling sign. For comparison sake, Keuchel finished 58th with a 76.7% last season in the same category. That does help us draw the conclusion that when he isn’t getting ground-balls, Leake becomes a vulnerable pitcher. And yes, while the Astros normally had a competent defense at most positions in 2015, it would be tough for Leake to up his pitching prowess without limiting contact, increasing his strikeout rate, and/or pitching with an elite defense behind him.
Then there is the contract it would take to bring Leake into the fold that could be the final deterrent for the Astros. Is Jeff Luhnow willing to tie up millions of dollars for the next four-to-six years in who could be just an average major league pitcher? I don’t think so. And considering how the Astros front office likes to structure their starting rotation, I doubt the organization is willing to make an exception for Leake.
**Statistics provided by Fangraphs and Baseball Savant**