Despite the constant criticism from fans, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Mike Leake has started the 2013 Major League Baseball season on fire.
Fans were disappointed with his 8-9 record and 4.58 ERA in 2012, but he has put last year behind him.
This was the year that Aroldis Chapman was finally going to make the transition to the rotation, but plans changed and Leake kept his spot. When Tony Cingrani came up and had an electrifying run of starts, fans wanted him to replace Leake in the rotation. Instead, Leake turned his game up.
Since Cingrani arrived in Cincinnati earlier this season, Leake has allowed more than three earned runs only once. In the one game that he allowed four earned runs, he had held the Atlanta Braves to two runs through seven before being the victim of bad luck in the eighth.
During his five starts in May, he led the team with a 1.87 ERA. He went 3-1 in May and went through the best stretch of his career. He went 21 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run before allowing a home run to the final batter of his last start (game recap courtesy of ESPN.com) and 17.1 innings without allowing any runs.
Leake went at least seven innings in three of the starts. He has gone at least seven innings in five of his 10 starts in 2013.
The right-hander got off to a rough start to the season and allowed nine runs in 12 innings through his first two starts. He has allowed 14 runs—12 earned—in his last eight starts.
In a rotation that has every pitcher with an ERA below 3.40, nobody would have guessed who would be leading the starters in ERA. Leake's 3.02 ERA is the lowest of anyone on the team with at least 30 innings pitched. Even though Homer Bailey and Mat Latos have been great this year, Leake has allowed fewer earned runs than them.
Leake is currently averaging 6.46 strikeouts per nine innings, which is the best rate of his career. He has also induced 11 double plays this season—nobody else on the team has more than six. He has turned in an average of 16 double plays per season and has never had more than 19, but he is on pace to easily top those numbers.
Fans seem to forget that Leake is the No. 5 starter, although he'd be a No. 3 at worst on just about every other team. Teams should be content if their fifth starter stays around .500 with a decent ERA. Leake has had a winning record in two out of his three full seasons, and he has a career 4.09 ERA.
No. 5 starters aren't supposed to have the lowest ERA on the team, but that's exactly what Leake has done this year. It's not a knock on the rest of the rotation because Leake has just been that good.
After ditching his long hair over the offseason, Leake has rebounded from a disappointing season last year.
Cingrani is back in Louisville and Chapman remains in the bullpen, but Leake is only getting better in the rotation. Although his competitors rely too much on the fastball, Leake mixes up his pitches.
Maybe getting rocked by the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of the National League Division Series gave him extra motivation entering this season. Maybe he's just a 25-year-old without a dominating fastball learning how to pitch in the majors.
The former first-round pick is showing exactly how good he can be. If Leake can keep it up, the Reds will be tough to beat in the National League Central.
*All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com