I tuned into the Reds-Cardinals game Wednesday to watch Cards phenom Shelby Miller pitch. Ultimately, the reason I kept watching was because of Reds starter Mike Leake.
The first time I ever saw Leake pitch was on a breezy April 24, 2009 game at Cal. Then a college junior, Leake was the ace of an Arizona State team that would go on to advance to the College World Series semifinals. Leake dealt at Evans Diamond that Friday, limiting Cal to one run on five hits to earn his 10th win of the season.
Even at the collegiate level, Leake demonstrated only moderate velocity. What immediately impressed me about him was the command of his secondary stuff. Leake could absolutely throw darts with his curveball and changeup, which made his fastball seem electric. He struck me as a young right-handed version of Kirk Rueter. And what he’s done since that day five years ago has made me feel really good about that evaluation.
Leake went on to post a Pac-10 best 16-1 record that season as the Sun Devils advanced to Omaha only to be eliminated by Brandon Belt’s Texas Longhorns. Leake was named the American Baseball Coaches’ Association National Player of the Year for his performance, proceeding 2008 winner Buster Posey.
With the Giants drafting sixth overall that June, I had hoped they would select either Leake or Vanderbilt left-hander Mike Minor, but instead opted to go the high-school route with Georgia-born Zack Wheeler. Within the next two overall draft picks, Minor and Leake went off the board, with Minor being selected seventh overall by the Braves and Leake eighth overall by the Reds.
At the time, that draft order seemed about right to most prognosticators. And I’ve long since learned not to quibble with the way the Giants evaluate amateur pitching prospects. But with Leake’s first win of the year Wednesday, he improved his career major league record to 43-30. Mike Minor, already solidifying himself as a top-of-the-rotation talent, entered play Wednesday with a career record of 32-24. Wheeler, of course, was traded by the Giants to the Mets in the notorious Carlos Beltran deal of 2011, and has amassed a 7-5 record since being called up by New York last season.
Wednesday against the Cardinals, Leake was even more dominant than he was five years ago against Cal. The 26-year-old right-hander delivered eight shutout innings while allowing just four hits, needing just 100 pitches to get the better of the Cards’ Miller, who falls to 0-2 on the year.
So, while many may spotlight Wednesday’s performance by Reds’ rookie leadoff man Billy Hamilton — the speedster went 3 for 4 with two steals and two runs scored, including his turning a pop-up off the bat of Jay Bruce to very shallow right field into a sacrifice fly by essentially swiping home — it was Leake who emerged as one of the cornerstone players upon whom the 2014 Reds will build.