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Giants trade for Mike Leake, who is a different pitcher away from Cincinnati

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The home/away splits are drastic for Leake, whose home park has been the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, a haven for home runs.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The trade deadline was rolling right along as the Giants traded away Keury Mella and Adam Duvall to acquire Mike Leake from the Reds. Read this blurb for a little more info on those two fellows; I won't be focusing on them. The right-handed Leake, still only 27, has spent his enitre career with the Reds, whose home ballpark is quite favorable for home runs. Leake, in response to his home park, appears to be a different pitcher on the road than at home.

The first thing to know about Leake is that he is a pitch-to-contact kind of pitcher. The highest strikeout rate of his career, a mere 18.2 percent, was last year. Since he pitches to contact and wants to stay employed, he is a ground-ball pitcher. The lowest ground ball rate in his career was 47.7 percent in 2011; his current grounder rate is 51.5 percent, which is good for 21st among all qualified starters.

Naturally, Leake relies on his sinker to generate those ground balls. This is where the odd intersection between his home ballpark, sinker usage, ground ball rate, and production allowed on batted balls coalesce to form a pitcher whose results away from the Great America Ballpark are far better than at it.

*Career stats in the table below

Home Away
ERA 4.31 3.43
FIP 4.27 4.07
xFIP 3.66 3.88
BABIP .303 .277
wOBA .335 .310
K% 17.5% 15.0%
BB% 6.1% 6.0%
HR/FB 15.4% 11.7%

Right away, there are lots of differences to notice. His ERA is lower away. His BABIP is way lower away. His wOBA is way lower away. His strikeout rate is better at home. His HR/FB rate is better away. Finally, note the pattern in the difference between his ERA and xFIP. Though his xFIP is higher away, his ERA is much lower. Though his home xFIP is lower, his ERA is much higher. Clearly, there is something going on beneath the surface with Leake.

Given that the differences in his "pitcher-controlled" indicators (strikeout rate, walk rate, and homer rate) are fairly obvious but don't explain the difference, I looked at batted ball rates and production allowed differences between home and away games for his whole career. Baseball Savant and FanGraphs wonderfully provide the opportunity to analyze these data.

As far as batted ball rates go, Leake manages a bit better away than at home. Away, his line drive rate is better and his ground ball rate is a little higher (in addition to the HR/FB rate noted above). That doesn't quite explain the huge differences, though it helps. What might help further explain the differences is the home and away production allowed by each batted ball type, and what I found wasn't what I expected.

Keep in mind that I'm using Baseball Savant's batted ball type classifications, which come from PitchF/X. There is source disagreement between what is a line drive and what is a fly ball, but that turns out to be irrelevant. I expected to see big differences in his fly ball production allowed between home and away games, and that's not the case. Over his career, Leake has allowed a .247 BA / .750 SLG on fly balls at home. On the road, Leake has allowed a .262 BA / .718 SLG on fly balls on the road. The increased batting average on the road compensates for the lower slugging percentage such that the total production (1.7*BA+SLG) allowed is about the same. On line drives, Leake does allow higher production at home than on the road, but the difference is not that large.

It's on ground balls that Leake stifles production on the road.

Again, over his career, Leake has allowed a .228 BA / .246 SLG on ground balls at home. That's a pretty normal level of production allowed. However, on the road, Leake has allowed a .191 BA / .206 SLG on ground balls. In 2015, the difference is even more pronounced.

There are two related reasons why Leake gets more grounders, fewer strikeouts, and likely stifles production on grounders more on the road. First, Leake throws his sinker more on the road than at home. For his career, he throws his sinker about three percentage points more on the road. That difference is larger, about five percentage points, in 2015.

Not only does Leake throw his sinker more on the road, but more recently in his career he locates it lower. Defining "low" as zones 7,8,9,13, and 14 (Baseball Savant zones), Leake throws his sinker low about 53.3 percent of the time at home. On the road, that number is 48.6 percent. In 2015, Leake still throws his sinker low about 53.3 percent of the time at home, but he throws sinker low about 60.3 percent of the time on the road.

Essentially, Leake goes for more strikeouts at home, and his production allowed on ground balls suffers for it. On the road, Leake pitches to contact more, and his production allowed on ground balls plummets. As a member of the Giants, Leake will not need to worry much about allowing contact at home. According to FanGraphs' park factors, the Reds' home park is the second-easiest park in which to hit a home run. His new park, the Giants' park, is the hardest stadium in which to homer. Leake should pitch more like his road self in his new home park.

As Mike Leake is a low strikeout, low walk, high ground ball pitcher, the Giants essentially just acquired a younger version of Tim Hudson. That worked fairly well for the Giants last year.

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Kevin Ruprecht is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.