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Mike Leake = Big Leaguer

A look back through the archives at what has been written at this very site about the newest member of the Cincinnati Reds starting rotation. The evolution of former Arizona State prospect and current big leaguer Mike Leake as seen through the lens of a nobody amateur draft prognosticator…

February 20, 2009

Leake was ranked 11th on my first ever published list of draft-eligible college players. Not bad, right? Just ignore the fact that he was sandwiched between Indiana’s Josh Phegley (a player I still like, but clearly not a prospect on Leake’s level) and the pitching version of Long Island’s James Jones, a player eventually drafted by Seattle as a toolsy outfielder. My evaluation of him at the time included the following defense of the “controversial” at the time ranking of Leake over Baylor’s Kendal Volz:

Leake over Volz is a little strange, but it came down to present plus command and movement over potential power plus stuff across the board.

February 27, 2009

One week later I noted the way Leake outdueled fellow future first round pick Kyle Gibson. Leake’s numbers that day: 8 IP 1 H 0 ER 1 BB 10 K (11 GO/2 AO). Also noted at the time was Leake’s stellar groundball numbers: 19 of his 23 batted ball outs at that point in the season came on the ground.

March 3, 2009

This is where things starting to get hot and heavy with the Leake lovefest. His ranking (6th on a list of 2009 draft-eligible righthanded college pitchers) may not seem all that impressive, but keep in mind that meant only Aaron Crow, Tanner Scheppers, Kyle Gibson, Alex White, and Stephen Strasburg were ahead of him. Not a bad list of pitchers to fall behind, all things considered. His quick scouting report at the time looked like this:

Leake literally has everything I look for in a pitching prospect. Let’s do it bullet point style:

  • Plus athleticism – has played first, second, short, and every outfield position as a Sun Devil
  • Ability to handle the bat – hit .340/.500/.574 in 47 at bats last season (12/9 walk to strikeout ratio)
  • Groundball inducing stuff – so far this season, 19 of his 23 non-K outs recorded have come on the ground
  • Plus secondary pitch – slider works better as another groundball inducing weapon, but it also creates plenty of swings and misses
  • Above-average third pitch – his changeup is nearly as good as his slider
  • Plus command – his ability to spot any of his three pitches has earned him universal praise from scouts
  • Plus control – roughly 1.75 BB/9 in his college career
  • Plus makeup/competitiveness – only good things have been said by scouts, coaches, teammates, and parents about Leake’s drive to succeed and strong work ethic

What Leake is missing is an ideal frame (he’s 6-0, 180), an overpowering fastball (sits 89-92), and a whole lot of room for growth. I’d argue the last point a bit because I think any two-way player stands to gain a little something once they begin to focus solely on one aspect of the game, but, on the whole, those negatives are fair criticisms of Leake’s game. Fortunately, a blazing hot fastball and a “prototypical pitcher’s frame” each fall very low on the list of things I care about. A high radar gun reading on a fastball is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but good fastball movement (something Leake has in spades) trumps good fastball speed every time. There is something to be said about a physical frame that needs filling out eventually producing a better fastball down the road, sure, but many college pitchers are what they are by their junior seasons anyway. The backlash against short righthanders is not grounded in empirical research, so I tend to actually look at short righthanded pitching as being a potentially undervalued asset in the draft every year. Yes, I just spun Leake’s lack of height as a positive. Your mileage might vary with that part of the assessment.

One industry comp and one personal comp for Leake before we wrap this thing up. First, my slightly off the wall comparison – highly-touted Japanese prospect Yu Darvish. Darvish has four inches on Leake and throws a knuckle-curve, but they have similar stuff (sinker, slider, change) otherwise. The better comparison may be the more common one – a lesser Tim Hudson, right down to the two-way talent shown at the college level. You could do worse than a poor man’s Tim Hudson come draft day.

My first prediction of where Leake would wind up drafted came at the end of the piece. Wasn’t quite on the money, but the guess worked pretty well for an early March estimate:

There will be sexier options on draft day for teams picking in the mid- to late first round, but there may not be as sure a bet to be a dependable major leaguer as Leake. I bet he is a target of teams with multiple high picks (Arizona) and mid-market franchises picking in the late teens/early twenties (St. Louis, Toronto, Houston).

March 10, 2009

When I updated the college big board with report card grades (a good idea for 2010 come to think of it), Leake received high praise:

11. Mike Leake – RHSP – Arizona State – One of the easiest grades to assign, Leake’s been phenomenal through three starts so far… A+

March 22, 2009

I can’t believe there is any doubt that Mike Leake has a first round caliber arm. His latest outing was excellent: 9 IP 5 H 1 ER 1 BB 15 K in a win over rival Arizona. His season numbers are pristine (48/7 strikeout to walk numbers in 40 innings of 1.35 ERA pitching) and his scouting reports have been positive all spring long.

April 2, 2009

Leake may be my favorite prospect in all the draft, but I’m not sure how much my opinion matters to teams drafting in the first round…yes, he’s a very good prospect and an almost sure-fire first rounder, but I don’t want my inflated opinion of him getting in the way of properly assessing his relative value.

May 8, 2009

Predicted Leake would go to Colorado with the 11th pick in the first round one month ahead of the draft

June 5, 2009

Stuck with Leake to Colorado with the 11th pick in last mock before the big day

June 9, 2009

Fourth on my last Big Board leading up to the draft! Fourth! My love of Leake as a prospect seemingly grew with every passing week. Nothing has changed from the glowing scouting report posted above. Leake possesses a good fastball (sitting 88-92, peak 94), plus slider, above-average changeup, usable curve, plus command, plus control, plus athleticism, and, perhaps my personal favorite positive, intriguing potential with the bat. Can’t wait to see what he does with the Reds this season.

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