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Does Mike Leake have a new cutter?

Mike Leake’s cutter is among the league’s best. Is he doing something different?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past couple of weeks, I have wanted to take a look at pitchers who have seemingly stepped up their performance into the 2017 season. I stumbled upon two — Mike Leake and Bud Norris — completely unaware of the connections they have with one another, not just in their improvements, but exactly how they have improved.

If you’re a regular reader of mine, first, thank you. Second, this means that you probably read my article about Norris from Tuesday, in which I discussed his newfound dominance coming via just one pitch.

Leake has done exactly the same thing, all the way down to the pitch he has improved with. This year, he’s made six starts for the Cardinals, allowing eight earned runs over 40 13 innings pitched for a 1.79 ERA. Perhaps even more encouraging are his peripherals; his 12.7 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate is the highest of his career. And while Leake has never been known as a power pitcher, his 17.2 percent strikeout rate is his second-highest season mark to date.

Yes, there are some differences between Leake and Norris. Norris, for one, has struck out far more hitters this season than ever before. Leake, on the other hand, has managed to stay in line with his overall K/BB numbers. Despite that, though, Leake’s FIP has fallen drastically, from 3.83 last year to 2.53 this season. His xFIP, at 3.52, would also be a career best.

But, enough about Norris, this article is about Leake. He’s obviously a different pitcher in 2017 than he has been in years past. And, this could potentially be why.

Leake’s cutter usage, by year
Chart via Brooks Baseball

Leake’s cutter usage has steadily increased in each of the past four years. Aside from his shortened 2010, it bottomed out in 2014 before seeing an increased use in each of the succeeding years.

And he’s sure having success with it. Opponents are hitting just .135 with a .231 slugging percentage against his cutter. It also has generated 12 of his 27 strikeouts this year. No wonder he’s increased the pitch’s usage to over 30 percent, then.

But I don’t understand why Leake’s cutter has not always been this good. It has generated a large percentage of his strikeouts, but opposing hitters have generally had more success against it than they have had this year.

Leake’s cutter by the numbers

Year BAA SLG Against K with pitch K total %K generated with pitch
Year BAA SLG Against K with pitch K total %K generated with pitch
2017 0.135 0.231 12 27 44.44%
2016 0.266 0.381 46 125 36.80%
2015 0.222 0.369 46 119 38.66%
2014 0.273 0.414 53 164 32.32%
2013 0.250 0.400 42 122 34.43%
2012 0.238 0.332 25 116 21.55%
2011 0.256 0.435 31 118 26.27%
2010 0.407 0.593 4 91 4.40%

Leake’s cutter has never been as dominant as it is right now. Hitters are posting a lower batting average and slugging percentage against than ever before, and cutters are making up a larger percentage of his overall strikeout total. To me, this signifies a change. He’s already thrown nearly 200 cutters this season, so while you could still claim it’s a small sample size, I decided to do some research into what has made Leake’s cutter different in 2017.

Leake’s cutter, by vertical movement with gravity
Chart via Brooks Baseball

First, I decided to look at vertical movement to see if there was any trend. The findings were interesting. Leake’s cutter is dropping, on average, 23.43 inches (with gravity) from the time it leaves his hand. That sounds like a lot, but it’s actually four inches above what is considered average for the pitch.

Historically, Leake’s pitches have always dropped less than the average cutter (which really isn’t supposed to drop much anyway), but he is seeing his cutter drop around an inch-and-a-half less than all the cutters he threw from 2011 to 2016. Only in 2010 did his cutter experience less vertical drop.

Leake’s cutter, by horizontal movement
Chart via Brooks Baseball

Next, I looked at Leake’s horizontal movement, which is presented more effectively in a chart like this. For reference, this is from the catcher’s point of view. A pitch with zero horizontal movement does not move. Any positive x-values moves toward the right, or in on a left-handed hitter. Negative x-values move toward right-handed hitters.

In Leake’s case, only in 2010 and 2017 did his cutter move toward the right-handed batter’s box; all other years, it moved slightly away. I was curious to see what the video evidence would show for something like this.

Leake’s 2010 cutter

Here’s a cut from Leake’s cutter in 2010, a year in which Brooks said that it generated movement away from left-handed hitters. This pitch is awfully inside — I’m aware — but as you can see after watching it a few times, the pitch starts at Nyjer Morgan’s leg before sneaking in to barely avoid hitting him. So, yes, it does appear that there is the movement away from left-handed hitters on this particular cutter.

Leake’s 2016 cutter

Here’s a GIF of one of Leake’s cutters from 2016. Despite what Brooks says, Leake’s cutter still moves away from a left-handed hitter. The only noticeable difference I see here, though, is that his cutter looks looser, more like a slider rather than a fastball. This particular pitch still clocked at 89 mph, but it does appear to have more break away from a left-handed hitter, almost going against the Brooks data.

Leake’s 2017 cutter

This pitch is the one that really fascinates me. It looks like it almost breaks in multiple directions out of his hand: first in toward Harper and then out back toward the middle of the plate. This pitch, to me, is definitely different than each of the first two, which appeared to break in only one direction.

What doesn’t add up here, though, is that Brooks’ data stated that Leake’s cutter either had very little horizontal movement or more away from right-handers. These, on the contrary, all moved slightly toward righties. One disclaimer: These are just one pitch from each year; Brooks collects hundreds of data points from throughout the season. So, these could all be outliers. It’s truly impossible to know.

Despite that, though, I do think Leake’s cutter is different this season, at least movement-wise. And that could be why it’s so hard to hit.

. . .

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.