As we head into the stretch run, the Reds may be in third place in the NL Central, but they are among the heavy favorites to return to the postseason. And while an offense that features former MVP Joey Votto draws a lot of the attention, this year it has been their pitching that has been the key component to their success, not least because of the breakthrough season being delivered by Mike Leake.
A 2009 first-round pick out of Arizona State, Leake skipped the minors altogether by making the major league rotation in spring training in 2010. He was never going to wow people with overpowering stuff as much as he was going to outfox hitters with a five-pitch assortment he could throw for strikes. His subsequent three seasons of workmanlike results (28-22, 4.23 ERA) might have reflected both the positive and negative results of picking a polished college pitcher: close enough to be ready to contribute almost immediately, but a guy with limited upside despite his relative youth.
That held true until this year, Leake's age-25 season, because Leake is putting up his best season yet, with a career-best 2.86 ERA and a 10-5 record. Switch to Fielding-Independent Pitching and its substantially more modest expectations because of Leake's low strikeout rate, and he's still putting up a career-best 4.00 FIP. Not shabby for the guy slotted fifth in the rotation at the start of the season, and someone many analysts wanted swapped out of the rotation for Aroldis Chapman.
From the Reds' perspective, the timing could not have been better. With staff ace Johnny Cueto repeatedly bouncing back to the DL, they needed better results from their other horses, and Leake has helped them overcome Cueto's absence to produce one of the strongest top-to-bottom rotations in the league, making the Reds a pitching-dependent contender despite playing in a hitters' park. Heading into Friday night's action, the Reds rank second in the NL (behind the Braves) and third in the majors in quality starts with 73 (the Tigers hold the overall lead with 82), and third overall in runs allowed per game.
It's a quality to his ballclub that manager Dusty Baker clearly enjoys having. "Guys start dealing, and they start dealing in back-to-back starts, they're going to push each other. Our guys feed off that," Baker said.
What's especially remarkable is that with strikeout rates sitting at a modern all-time high just shy of 20 percent of all plate appearances, Leake is the rare command/control guy who is thriving even as his strikeout rates have dropped to a career-low 14.8 percent.
Baker is a confirmed fan, not just as a matter of results, but because of Leake's commitment to his craft. "He started out throwing well, and then he had a little down period, a period of adjustment. Last year he started out 0-5, but I had faith in him and our pitching coach had faith in him. But there were those who thought we should take him out of the rotation and replacing him with Aroldis Chapman. But we knew that he could pitch," Baker said.
"He worked hard this winter, really worked on his changeup. He's one of the better athletes that we have, and he's fearless. You would think that he thinks he's 6-5 and 235 [and not 5-10 and 185]. Velocity with no location isn't going to get you very far. Mike changes speeds, he has a pretty good idea of what he wants to do, and he's studied a lot. And he really, really looks up to Bronson. He pays attention," Baker added
That would be Bronson Arroyo, staff elder statesman and another pitcher who makes his living with a deep assortment as opposed to impressing the speed gun. Reviewing how Leake has come this far this season, Arroyo doesn't think that much has changed in terms of what he brings to bear, so much as Leake has learned how to use what he has going for him to best effect.
"There's nothing glaring that Mike's doing differently this year as opposed to previously in terms of his stuff," Arroyo noted. "He's always had a good cutter, a sinker and he's had good command the slider; I saw him work a lot on his changeup in spring training, which has been a little bit of a factor. But I really think for him it was a gradual process of watching what was going on at the big league level."
The notoriously hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park doesn't make adjusting to the majors any easier, especially for a pitcher who, like Leake, is more dependent on outcomes on balls in play. "It's tough to be a control pitcher in our ballpark, with our park's dimensions," Baker observes.
More philosophically, Arroyo figures, "If you keep guys off the barrel of the bat, it really doesn't matter which ballpark you're in -- most of the time it's going to work out in your favor. There are probably seven to 10 times a year when any one of us is going to get burned in our ballpark, when a ball to right-center field off a right-hander's bat goes into the first two rows and you feel like that would have been caught anywhere else in the game. But for the most part, between home plate and the pitcher's mound is what matters. If you get it done there, it doesn't matter what's behind you."
Big fans of either Voros McCracken's Defense-Independent Pitching Statistics and Don Miguel Ruiz's Four Agreements can equally rejoice over that mindset, of a pitcher trying to control only that which you have some control over.
Arroyo believes universal off-the-field and personal experiences have come into play in Leake's success. "I just think for Mike, it's very difficult at this level, no matter how much experience you've had anywhere else, to really be who you were at those other places. It's taken Mike some time and it takes all of us some time; it took me three and a half years," Arroyo said. "Now he's finally showing what he can do in an environment where he's comfortable enough to deal with the pressure. Pressure on the field is a different thing, and the only way you can deal with it is if you're comfortable everywhere else.
"He didn't have any minor league experience, so he was very green when he came here," Arroyo observed. "I don't think he realized how long the season was and how much of a toll that was going to take from a pitcher's body over a long period of time. It took a little while for him to build a program, and that's where I think I've helped: His watching me on a day-to-day basis and realizing that you have to be a little bit OCD in this game if you want to be successful. He had to figure out a program of what to do, year after year after year. That's the biggest difference I've seen with him. Once he started having some success, having that trust in that regime that you've built is working. Once he got that confidence, he's been unstoppable since."
Baker adds, "When you're young like that, you're going to go through periods of adjustment. I don't think some people understand that it's not that easy, not just to get to the top but to stay at the top, especially when you haven't gone to the minor leagues."
But now that Leake is cruising, Baker is clearly ready for more of the same as Leake gets older. "He's going to get stronger. He's kind of a Greg Maddux-type of pitcher -- not to put that kind of pressure on him, but he's a Maddux type. He studies, he has an idea of what he has to do, he adapts to the situation. A lot of strikeout pitchers, they just strike out guys, but after they get that first guy out, they haven't thought about the next guy. Mike pitches for the double play when he can, gets a strikeout when he needs it, and he just knows what he wants to do out there."
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.