Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Dee Gordon (left) celebrates with Jean Segura (right)
Talk about two teams headed in different directions. Before their loss in Houston on Wednesday, the first-place (yes, first-place) Mariners won 14 of 17, thanks to outstanding pitching.
During that 14-3 stretch, their staff owned a sparkling 2.20 ERA. They held their opponents to one or fewer runs in eight of those 14 wins, and only allowed one of the 14 opponents to score more than three. The Mariners also found a way to win an inordinate amount of close contests, as they went 9-2 in one-run games over that span — including 4-0 in extra innings.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay has lost six straight, three of which came at the hands of Seattle last weekend. During that six-game streak, the Ray totaled only 12 runs. Their struggling offense might get a much-needed boost today, as they have called up one of their top prospects, Jake Bauers, a power-hitting lefty first baseman.
Let’s take a look at tonight’s game in Tampa by analyzing the starting pitching matchups. We will also cover some key trends and a potential fantasy fade.
Seattle Mariners (-113) at Tampa Bay Rays (+103) | O/U: 8
Mike Leake (5-3, 4.71 ERA) vs. Ryne Stanek (1-1, 3.65 ERA)
7:10 p.m. ET
Mike Leake: For those who have followed me on Twitter for a while, you know that I used to love betting Leake on the road when he pitched for the Reds. (Just search #RoadMikeLeake for the history there.) The reason? He pitches to contact, which simply doesn’t “fly” in the bandbox they call Great American Ball Park in Cincy. He routinely got smacked around at home, which would provide value when he hit the road to pitch in less hitter-friendly parks.
Well, that no longer applies, as he now pitches at a home stadium that is much more conducive to contact. When Leake’s going well, he’s inducing a lot of ground balls. His 47.9% ground-ball rate (GB%) ranks 22nd in MLB, but is actually almost six percentage points lower than his rate in 2016 and 2017. Over the past three seasons, the right-hander has the eighth-highest GB% among all qualified pitchers.
He does get into trouble when he allows fly balls, as evidenced by his career 13.6% HR/FB (Home Run per Fly Ball) rate. That’s why he benefits so much in bigger parks. His career home 15.2% HR/FB rate reflects all of the years he spent in Cincy. In contrast, he has a much better lifetime road HR/FB rate of 12.0%. That isn’t far from his 2018 home HR/FB of 12.8% at the pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. Per the 2017 FanGraphs five-year Park Factor regression, both Safeco and Tropicana Field (in Tampa) rank in the bottom-third for hitters.
Since he doesn’t have strikeout stuff, Leake really has no choice but to pitch to contact. Since he embraces that approach, he doesn’t walk many batters. Leake’s 1.98 BB/9 ranks 13th among all qualified pitchers. That isn’t just a result of a small sample size, either. Just take a look at his walk rate (and corresponding MLB ranks) over the previous seven seasons:
Leake comes in hot, having allowed only four runs over his past three starts spanning 21.2 innings. (He also hasn’t walked a batter in his past four starts, while striking out 15.) And while he faced three struggling offenses in Oakland, Minnesota and Tampa, he will face one of those slumping offenses again today at a park that he can pitch in. I expect a strong start from #RoadMikeLeake.
If you are looking for reasons to fade Leake, the Rays don’t hit many ground balls (sixth-lowest GB% in MLB) and have the eighth-highest HR/FB rate in 2018. But again, their offense has looked horrendous of late. — Stuckey