The Boston Red Sox have been tied to many trade rumors involving starting pitching. Big names like Philadelphia Phillies’ own Cole Hamels, Cincinnati Reds’ Johnny Cueto, and others have graced the headlines and adding up to very little. Judging by their contracts for 2016, or lack thereof in some cases, that may not be such a bad thing. It’s no secret that the Red Sox do need to fix their starting rotation, with Justin Masterson and, possibly, Joe Kelly being held in the bullpen for the rest of the season. However, a name not often brought up until recently is another Reds starter: Mike Leake.
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In a lengthy article on trade possibilities, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported that “Leake is beloved for his athleticism, and some [American League] East teams also appreciate that he keeps the ball down. The Blue Jays, Astros and Royals are among many interested teams, while the Orioles, Red Sox, Dodgers, Rangers, Cubs and Giants among other teams to show some level of interest at some point.”
With three out of the five A.L. East teams in the top five for MLB’s list of most home runs, the Red Sox could use some more pitchers who keep the ball on the ground when struck. The New York Yankees have 119 homers, followed closely behind by the Toronto Blue Jays with 118, and the Baltimore Orioles have 111. The Red Sox cannot counter as well, being a distant 14th with 84 home runs.
Coming off of the All-Star Break, the Red Sox have fallen short of victory twice in a row against the Los Angeles Angels because of the long ball, losing 1-0 on Friday to a Mike Trout blast in the ninth inning and losing 3-0 from two solo homers from Kole Calhoun on Saturday night. Home runs are killing the Red Sox right now, and they need pitching that can stop the tide from drowning them before the end of the month.
Leake may be the solution to Boston’s sinking ship. Excuse the pun, but don’t dismiss the man. The righty pitcher from San Diego, California has played almost six seasons, all with the Reds since 2010. The 27-year-old has a 7-5 record with a 3.95 ERA in 19 starts. Part of that record is because of the Reds’ inability to score runs, ranking 24th in MLB’s list of team runs scored, even though they are seventh in home runs recorded. The Reds are only hitting a team batting average of .248 and have a team on-base percentage of .312. These numbers don’t add up to wins, no matter whom you have pitching on the mound.
Jul 5, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Mike Leake at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
Leake has struck out 81 while walking just 33 opposing batters, while keeping the ball low enough in the strike zone to allow only 14 home runs. Boston’s own Rick Porcello has given up four more than Leake and Porcello’s opposing batting average is much higher at .292 than Leake’s .252.
According to FanGraphs.com, the reasoning behind it can be found in Leake’s groundball-to-flyball ratio, which is at 2.18. Nobody on the Boston Red Sox pitching staff, outside of relievers Robbie Ross Jr. (2.26) and Tommy Layne (2.05), have a ratio even close to that. Wade Miley (1.44), Porcello (1.27), Justin Masterson (1.88), and Joe Kelly (1.62) were brought to Boston to earn groundball outs; yet, Leake’s skills seem to fit that strategy much better. The closest to Leake is Clay Buchholz (1.58) who is still on the starting rotation, and he was already in Boston last year.
Leake’s strategy works because of the seven different types of pitches that he throws. He has a four-seam fastball (91 mph), a cutter (90 mph), a changeup (86 mph), a slider, a curveball, a knuckle curve, and a sinker that is deadly. That last pitch, combined with his switch to the knuckle curve, has messed with hitters’ heads at the plate and resulted in many of those groundouts.
While numbers are great, the most significant one is the figure written on Leake’s current contract. He’s making just under $9.8 million and will become a free agent in 2016. His Reds teammate Cueto is in the same position, making $10 million and looking to make a big splash in the free-agent market in the off-season. Hamels is guaranteed to make $70.5 million from 2016-2018 and another $20 million in a team option with a $6 million buyout clause. With big names and big money floating around, Leake will not be making that same kind of money, even with a pay raise next season. Even if he becomes only a rental pitcher for 2015, signing elsewhere afterwards, Leake will be cheaper than some of these other trade-rumor options.
At least in short-term financing. What would it take to pull Leake away from the Reds? Boston’s well-documented desire to keep much of their youth, especially since many of them have had to be starters this year, may be the only stumbling block. But it’s more like a huge boulder if the Reds want to rebuild a winner next season. Cueto’s almost assuredly gone, so what is going to keep Cincinnati season-ticket holders coming to the ballpark this season and in the future? Everyone thinks about their own team’s misfortunes and are frantic for trades to fix them, but at what cost will the Red Sox give up for anyone at this point?
Almost 53% of pitches Leake throws that are hit become grounders, which is not much different than some of the Red Sox starters except for the fact that Leake does not miss high in the strike zone as much as they do. Maybe the plan should have been to try to pry Leake away from the Reds in the off-season. That might not have been a possibility, but it would have made life much better for Red Sox Nation than watching Porcello, Miley, Masterson, and Kelly struggle out of the gate, with only Miley hitting his stride mid-way through the season. Leake might be their most inexpensive rental player whom the Red Sox executives could find. Even then, it’s going to be really expensive no matter who they obtain in a trade.
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