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Another Cy surprise? Three aces no one saw coming

Mike Leake leads the NL with a 1.94 ERA going into Wednesday's matchup. Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

With the Boston Red Sox facing the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), the pitching matchup of Rick Porcello versus Mike Leake is particularly intriguing because Leake is perhaps this year’s Porcello. Last season, Porcello became a surprise Cy Young winner, entering the season with a career 4.32 ERA, but going 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA to edge out Justin Verlander in the voting. Leake, coming off a 4.69 ERA with the Cardinals in 2016, now leads the NL with a 1.94 ERA.

Is it for real? Probably not, but we would have said last year that Porcello or Kyle Hendricks wouldn’t keep it up. Hendricks also starts Wednesday, and after some rough outings to start 2017, he has allowed just four runs over his past four starts.

Let’s take a closer look at Leake and two other Wednesday starters who may be on their way to Porcello-like seasons.

Mike Leake, St. Louis Cardinals

Stats: 4-2, 1.94 ERA, 46 1/3 IP, 36 H, 10 BB, 32 K's, 3 HRs

Leake is a perfect fit for the Porcello profile: Veteran starter with a good health record, kind of viewed as a midrotation innings eater, in his second season with a new team after a disappointing first season. Porcello made one obvious change in 2016, throwing more two-seam fastballs instead of four-seamers. Leake has always been a sinkerball guy and hasn’t really changed his approach, but his cutter has been much more effective, with batters hitting just .169 against it, a key reason lefties aren’t pounding him like they did a season ago.

That said, there is some BABIP-driven luck going on here (seventh-lowest among starters). There is also a high strand rate (eighth-best among starters). His rate of home runs on fly balls -- 13.5 percent in his career (which was also his 2016 rate) -- is at 8.5 percent. His ground ball rate is the same as it was last year. His strikeout-minus-walk rate is essentially the same. So in many ways, he’s the same pitcher. In Porcello’s case, he has regressed this year in part because all those luck-driven factors have turned against him, so his ERA is up even though his strikeout and walk peripherals are a little better.

Note that sometimes “luck” isn’t a fair analysis. Pitchers -- and pitches -- aren’t always the same from year to year. In fact, Leake’s cutter is moving much differently. His career spin rate on the cutter has been about 850 rpm. This year it’s at 1,441 rpm. That seems to be affecting the movement. His cutter has always broken away from a right-handed hitter; this year, it’s breaking into them (or away from a lefty).

Jason Vargas, Kansas City Royals

Stats: 5-1, 1.01 ERA, 44 2/3 IP, 33 H, 8 BB, 39 K's, 1 HR

How great is baseball? Vargas is 34 years old, he has made just 12 starts over the past two seasons after Tommy John surgery, his fastball is slower than ever and, suddenly, he’s pitching the best baseball of his life. He has thrown zeroes in four of his seven starts, his strikeout rate is better than ever, and his changeup has basically been unhittable. He’ll get a tough test Wednesday against the Yankees.

As he recovered from surgery last season, Vargas traveled with the team, working on his delivery with pitching coach Dave Eiland. “We really honed in on just cleaning up his delivery and repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating,” Eiland told the Kansas City Star’s Rustin Dodd. “He’s always had good command. But now his delivery is so clean and on time, it’s almost like he’s perfected it.”

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, or every pitcher would simply clean up his delivery. Vargas has dropped his release point a little bit, so pitches are coming out of his hand about two inches closer to first base. That’s added more horizontal movement to the pitch, which seems to be working, as opponents are hitting .119 against it; in 67 at-bats ending with a changeup, they have just two doubles and no home runs. ESPN Stats & Info tracks the number of hard-hit balls against it at two. Batters are also swinging and missing more often: In his most recent full season in 2014, batters had a miss rate of 36.6 percent on the changeup; so far, it’s at 43.3 percent. Here’s a look:

Will this continue? It will not! His ERA is 1.01! As with Leake, there does appear to be some real improvement here, however. Look, the home run rate will go up at some point, and maybe batters will start adjusting to the changeup. But it’s a beautiful thing to watch, and as Jamie Moyer has proven, you can be successful throwing slow and slower. The Royals are playing better of late, but they remain long shots for playoff contention, which could make Vargas one of the most interesting names at the trade deadline.

Ervin Santana, Minnesota Twins

Stats: 6-1, 1.50 ERA, 54 IP, 23 H, 21 BB, 41 K's, 6 HRs

Baseball is insane. That’s one of the strangest stat lines you’ll see. The walk rate isn’t impressive, the strikeouts aren’t impressive, the home runs allowed aren’t particularly low. Nothing makes sense. Batters are hitting .129 off him. He has allowed nine runs, and six of those were from the dudes who hit home runs, so only three of the other 42 baserunners have scored. His strand rate is 98.4 percent. Even crazier, six of those runs came in one game, when the Red Sox hit four home runs off him. Otherwise, he has given up no runs or one run, including four starts of two hits or fewer.

I heard an interview with Santana last week, and he explained his strong start to “maturing and not trying to strike everyone out.” But he has been in the big leagues 13 years. He’s just maturing now? Of course, he’s not going to say, “I’m the same guy, the balls are just being hit right at people.”

Anyway, diving into some of the metrics, I don’t see Santana doing anything different. He’s still fastball/slider/changeup, same velocity, same everything. Just a guy with a low BABIP and Byron Buxton behind him.