LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Mike Leake glanced over his right shoulder at Kolten Wong, standing just a shade to the right of second base, then turned and threw his usual pitch, a sinking fastball. Brandon Phillips took an aggressive swing and struck the ball on the bottom of the barrel of his bat. It took two sharp little hops.
Leake stabbed at it with his glove and missed, but Wong was standing right there. Wong bent, pulled it in and threw to first base for an easy out.
“I’ve been playing against that guy for a couple years now. I know his tendencies and I was guessing right on that one,” Wong would say later.
If only things had gone as smoothly for Leake last season as they did in an early spring-training game against the Atlanta Braves last week. Often when Leake turned around last season after a hitter made contact, the St. Louis Cardinals right-hander saw balls nicking off gloves, dribbling through the infield or landing in open patches of the outfield.
Most Cardinals fans can tell you that Leake is coming off a disappointing season. He signed a five-year, $80 million contract and then had the highest ERA (4.69) of his seven-year career. He gave up more hits (203) than in all but one of those previous seasons. He’s aware of his numbers -- what player isn’t? -- but he takes issue with the notion that it was a down year.
“I think I had a fairly decent year," he said. "I mean, I don’t think I had a bad year."
Leake was the poster child for the Cardinals’ primary failing last season: a lack of defensive crispness that played a large role in the club missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The Cardinals committed all those dollars to Leake, then assembled an infield that failed to make plays.
By the fielding independent pitching (FIP) statistic, Leake (3.83) had the finest season of his career, in part due to an uptick in strikeouts (125) and his usual stinginess with walks (30). He had the best ground-ball percentage of his career (53.7 percent) and a lower-than-usual line-drive percentage (21 percent). Batted balls simply weren’t converted to outs. Only four qualified major league pitchers -- Robbie Ray, Michael Pineda, Jon Gray and Wade Miley -- had a larger spread between their FIP and ERA, which are, basically, the expected results and the results.
Generally speaking, it isn’t a good idea to sign a pitcher who relies on his fielders, then blame him when those fielders struggle to get outs. Fans might not be keen on that notion, but the Cardinals' front office saw what was going on last season.
“He took the ball and gave us an opportunity to win. There are many factors that play into wins and losses as well as ERA," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "But I expect him to have a more successful season this year and I believe he is looking forward to it as well."
Will things truly change for Leake, who seems to be a bellwether for a Cardinals rotation that remains heavily invested in inducing ground balls? The Cardinals are hopeful they have improved on defense, which was among the worst in the National League last season by several measures. Randal Grichuk has already shown the speed and athletic ability to be an elite left fielder. Dexter Fowler is better than adequate as a center fielder. The corners of the infield should be stout if not spectacular, depending how quickly Matt Carpenter acclimates to first base. It's fair to say Leake is cautiously optimistic. He isn’t exactly gushing.
“I mean, we’ve still got the same infield,” he said. “I think we’ve got a good infield. It’s just a matter of making the fundamental plays and getting dirty when we need to.”
The St. Louis staff allowed a greater percentage of ground balls (49.5 percent of batted balls) than any team in the major leagues last season. By Fangraphs’ defensive rankings, however, the Cardinals ranked 24th in fielding. Both Jhonny Peralta and the man signed to replace him at shortstop, Ruben Tejada, got hurt in spring training. That forced the team to insert Aledmys Diaz into the starting lineup before Diaz’s glove was ready. Diaz had a spectacular rookie season at bat, putting up an .879 OPS and producing 3.5 WAR, but he made nine errors in his first 31 games and had negative defensive metrics.
Wong, a strong fielder, didn’t hit well enough to stay in the lineup every day, spending time both in the minor leagues and playing the outfield. Carpenter struggled at both second and third base, though the Cardinals are hopeful he will be a better-than-adequate first baseman. At times, it was as if everyone was out of position.
One of the focuses of spring has been finding stability, which starts with making Diaz as good as he can be defensively. Jose Oquendo, a special assistant to the GM, has worked with him. Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith was in camp and vouched for Diaz's strong hand-eye coordination, but said he had “heavy feet.” No one in camp expects him to morph into Smith overnight -- or ever -- but then again, Smith usually hit three to six home runs per season, not 17, as Diaz might one day.
“I love talking with him and trying move him in the right positions, but he’s made a bunch of strides just in the spring,” Wong said of Diaz. “He’s working on becoming more fluid. When Aledmys charges that ball, he’ll make a play every time. It’s just those balls at him where he had that trouble.”
Leake, 29, admits he pitched away from contact at times when his typical ground-ball approach didn’t yield good results. He has put back some, but not all, of the weight he lost last season during a bout with shingles, and he has continued to refine his ability to make tough, off-speed pitches for potential strikeouts when he gets two strikes on a batter. For him to have sustained success, however, most people seem to think he’ll need to have more than his 92 mph fastball working.
He’ll need to have seven men in alert and ready behind him.
“If we make the plays behind him," Wong said, "he could be huge for us this year."