Improved defense has been a stated goal for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017 and perhaps no one would benefit more from that result than Mike Leake.
While the right-hander finished with a record of 9-12 in his 30 starts last season. He recorded 125 strikeouts–second highest of his career, but he also averaged only 5.9 innings per start which is the lowest of his career. Several of those early departures were the result of a big inning driving up his pitch count.
According to Baseball Reference, Leake had a 75% balls in play percentage–which is consistent with the 74% he’s recorded over his career. So to was his line drive percentage (24%) just one notch higher than his career average. Extra base hits was also on par with his career numbers.
But Fan Graphs charts a key difference for Leake in 2016–his groundball percentage was up to a career-best 53.7%, however, opponents hit .318 on balls in play versus .260 the year before.
As he did during the season, Leake was careful not to throw any teammates under the bus when the topic came up at the Winter Warm-Up.
“I think we had three guys that were top ground ball pitchers last year,” said Leake, referring to himself, Carlos Martinez, and Jaime Garcia’s ranking in the National League. “So it’s definitely huge when you can have a defense that can move and I think it can only help with winning more ballgames too.”
No spots are guaranteed, but the Cardinals have indicated that Kolten Wong is going to be given every chance to play every day at second base.
“He’s an athletic little guy,” said Leake. “He’s fun to watch and I think he only helps our infield just because of his lateral movements and how quick he is with his hands. He’s a solid player and I look forward to watching him more.”
Another factor Leake had to contend with in 2016 was a case of shingles.
“In season it makes it tougher just because you’re kind of beating your body and then it hits you harder,” he said. “But now I finally feel like I’m getting completely over it to where I can start gaining weight. It definitely affects your body for a few months.”
These last couple of weeks, Leake has finally been able to start gaining back towards his Spring Training weight to be ready for the attrition over the regular season.
So whether or not it was dumb luck, bad defense, bad pitching, health, or all of the above an improved team defense in 2017 should help on all counts.
photo credit: Bill Greenblatt/UPI, St. Louis Baseball Weekly