A Whole New Level
Leake's game rises to the occasion for Sun Devils
To most students, Mike Leake probably looks like just another kid.
The 6-foot, 180-pounder has tan skin with a few freckles on his face, a wavy blonde surfer-dude mop top and the laid back Southern California demeanor to match. While he's physically fit, he doesn't have a big physical presence that would make you do a double-take if you passed him walking between classes at Arizona State.
While he may blend in on campus, he stands out on the mound.
Trading in his mellow swagger for a bulldog mentality between the lines, Leake makes coach Pat Murphy's job easy. Murphy knows he can hand Leake the ball every week, pencil him in for at least seven innings and likely add another one to the win column.
Through his first 10 games this year, Leake is 9-1, 1.61 with 83 strikeouts and 15 walks over 73 innings. He already had two complete games under his belt, won a battle against Missouri righthander Kyle Gibson with 105 scouts in attendance and recorded 15 strikeouts in another win against righthander Preston Guilmet and rival Arizona. And, by the way, he's challenging Floyd Bannister's aluminum bat-era ASU-record 1.46 ERA from 1976.
As if that wasn't impressive enough, Leake also spends a few hours every Monday working with Phoenix-area 5- to 9-year-olds on their baseball skills. When the school tried to pay him for his time, he refused.
"His teammates don't know that he does it for free and he doesn't brag about that kind of stuff," Murphy said. "On the field, he's been sensational. His body of work in three years is as good as I've seen. The way he competes and what kind of teammate he is, it's pretty special for college baseball."
But, then again, dominating the Pac-10 is nothing new for Leake.
Where It Counts
Leake throws from a three-quarters arm slot and gets a lot of armside run and sink on his fastball that sits around 90-92 mph and can touch 93-94. He has good command and takes pride in getting hitters to ground out.
"Grip definitely has a lot to do with it, but some pitchers can never get it," Leake said about his movement. "If it was easy, then every pitcher would have sink. I'm fortunate enough to have it and I think it also has to do with the way you have the ball come off and also if you can use your wrist a little more."
When he's not getting ground balls, Leake can also rack up the strikeouts because he has excellent command of good secondary stuff—a changeup, slider and cutter.
"He's got an advanced knowledge of pitching," an American League area scout said. "He knows how to pitch. He's got four average or better pitches that he can throw at any time. He keeps hitters off balance and they never have a comfortable at-bat against him. When you're evaluating pitchers, he's got it where it counts most—between the ears and between the legs."
The scout said Leake's command has gotten a little better this season and that his fastball command is what makes it the plus pitch that it is. He works both sides of the plate, up and down, and he does it easily. His curveball is behind the rest of his secondary stuff, but is still an average major league pitch.
Leake said he's been working to improve upon the mental aspect of pitching this season.
"Coach Murphy's done a lot for me as far as my emotions and keeping them in, instead of letting them out and letting them get to me," Leake said. "So, on the field, as far as pitching, that's helped me tremendously. In the past, I would try to force it, instead of just making my pitch. Say I gave up a double, I would try to force them to get out instead of just making my pitches and I'd try to be too dirty or make my pitches move more."
While Leake doesn't have the build many teams look for in high-profile starting pitchers, he makes up for it with athleticism. During his first two years of high school, he played center midfield on the soccer field, point guard on the basketball team and punted, kicked and played defensive back in football.
He's just as versatile on the baseball diamond, where he accumulated a .297/.427/.484 line over 64 at-bats during his freshman and sophomore seasons
"People don't realize what a phenomenal athlete he is," Murphy said. "He's our best position player, I just can't risk playing him out there every day with an arm like that, but he's our best third baseman, he's our best shortstop, he's our best first baseman, our best outfielder and if I had the guts to put him behind the plate, he'd probably be the best there, too."
While some teams may shy away from Leake on draft day because of his small frame, Murphy believes they may end up regretting the decision.
"Some people don't like his height and they can get caught up in that, but they got caught up with (Dustin) Pedroia too," Murphy said.
The scout doesn't think it should be an issue, either.
"I would say ask the hitters if his size matters," the scout said. "He's playing in the Pac-10, against good competition and they're not really doing a lot against him."
Model Of Consistency
After a standout prep career at Fallbrook (Calif.) High, Leake was selected in the seventh round of the 2006 draft by the Athletics.
"At one point, I could have tossed a coin up in the air, but for the most part I wanted the experience of college," Leake said. "Looking back, I don't know how I could have taken the other route. It's been a great experience so far."
He started his Sun Devil career coming out of the bullpen, but by the middle of the 2007 season he pitched his way into the weekend rotation. In his second start, he threw seven strong innings against USC, outdueling righthander Brad Boxberger for the win. Two weeks later, he notched a complete-game victory against Stanford's Jeremy Bleich, who went on to be a supplemental first-round pick by the Yankees last season.
By the end of the season, Murphy was trusting the curly-haired freshman in some of the team's biggest games. His second complete game as a freshman came against UC Riverside in regional play and it was arguably Leake's best performance that season. Over the nine innings, he allowed two runs on four hits while walking one and striking out 10. He gave the Sun Devils two more good starts against Mississippi and UC Irvine in super regionals and the College World Series. In the team's elimination game against the Anteaters, Leake got the loss in relief.
It was a bitter way to end a sweet season, one where Leake went 13-2, 3.69 and set ASU freshman records with 127 innings pitched and 94 strikeouts.
After spending the summer after his freshman year pitching in the Arizona Collegiate League, Leake returned to Tempe and went 11-3, 3.49 with 104 strikeouts and 20 walks over 121 innings. Some unfortunate dÄ"jÃ vu saw him saddled with the loss in the team's final game of the season. In was again in relief, this time against Fresno State in super regional play.
Leake spent last summer pitching for the USA Collegiate National Team that went 24-0. He went 3-0, 0.64 with 24 strikeouts and six walks over 28 innings.
"This kid has taken the ball for every start in three years and never been out of the game early, ever," Murphy said. "He's pitched against a great schedule every year and he's pitched every big game for us for three years. People need to take notice. He's been amazing."
Of his 38 career starts through mid-April this year, he's failed to go at least six innings just three times. One was a bullpen game where Leake technically recorded his first career start. In the other two, he went at least five innings.
"I try to go as deep as I can," Leake said. "I could probably do a complete game every time, but I mean it probably wouldn't be smart. We've got other pitchers that can do the job too. But, yeah, I've always liked to see my innings pitched up there because it shows people I can go deep in a game. You have your ups and downs once in a while but, for the most part, it's great to throw a lot of innings out there so you don't wear down your other arms. The more our starters can get it, the better."
The young Sun Devils aren't terribly deep on the mound and are counting on Leake and lefthander Josh Spence to carry the pitching staff back to Omaha. Leake is hoping that this postseason, the third time is a charm.