An interesting thing happened after the Reds drafted Mike Leake. He shrank an inch and a half.
He wasn't shrinking from the pressure of being a first round draft pick or reacting to the horror of having to pitch in Great American Ball Park, but rather he simply no longer had to overcome the irrational scouting bias against short right-handed pitchers.
Now that he's only 5-10 and 1/2 inches tall, Leake may provide more skill-per-inch than any other prospect in the draft. It's actually much easier to discuss what Leake lacks than what he does well. Essentially, the only thing Leake lacks is plus velocity, but he possesses every other skill that you'd want in a pitcher.
REPERTOIRE AND STRATEGY
Leake throws everything but the kitchen sink. He works with an assortment of different pitches: a two and a four seam fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup. And, I'm sure that even as you read this he's tinkering with a new pitch or a new grip to bring about different movement and give him the advantage over professional hitters.
In his first College World Series start against the University of Texas, Leake didn't have his best stuff, but he demonstrated the polished approach that defines his game. It was revealed later that Leake is possibly battling some tendinitis in his pitching arm, which could go a long way towards explaining his struggles. Leake tried to mix his pitches and speeds to attack the hitters, but he just couldn't execute. Simply put, he just didn't have his good command. He wasn't able to hit his spots, which is very uncharacteristic of him.
Leake was willing to throw any pitch in any count. In the first inning, he showed a good tailing fastball and a sharping biting curveball. But, his fastball command was spotty. Even so, he managed to get a strike out and wriggled out of trouble by inducing a double play ball.
In the second inning, Leake demonstrated his comfort with his secondary pitches, as he threw a breaking ball in both a 2-1 count and 0-0 count. He seems very comfortable throwing any pitch in any situation, but he still works off of the fastball. Even Jamie Moyer pitches off of the fastball, because it's what you have to do to set up all the other pitches.
I've had a running discussion about Leake's fastball velocity with a fellow Reds fan since he was drafted. He keeps talking about Leake's fastball reaching 94, while I keep saying he's an 88-92 type pitcher. I suppose he's right in the sense that Leake CAN touch 94, but what's more impressive than a couple extra miles per hour on the fastball is that Leake already realizes that he can succeed while working at less than max effort. He understands what pitching is all about and knows that success involves more than just lighting up the radar gun. It's about adding and subtracting velocity, changing the eye level of the hitter, and hitting your spots. As the great Warren Spahn said, "hitting is timing and pitching is upsetting that timing."
Leake's understanding of pitching is very advanced and belies his experience, as he already resembles a major league veteran on the mound.
MECHANICS AND ARM ACTION
Leake has a smooth, fluid delivery and utilizes a free-and-easy arm action. His very good athleticism helps him maintain his body control throughout his delivery. He starts his windup by stepping towards first base and bringing his hands down below the waist. He then brings his hands up to his right ear and utilizes a very high leg kick that brings his knee up to his chest. As he brings his leg up he also gets good hip rotation to store energy that he can unleash as he uncoils and comes to the plate. He does a good job driving off the rubber, which helps him "throw with his body" and reduce stress on his arm. His ability to be successful while working at less than max effort should also cut down on his injury risk.
Here is Leake in action:
As you can see, Leake works from a high three-quarter arm slot which gives his fastball a lot of tailing action to the arm side. He also gets very good sink on his pitches, which induces a lot of groundballs and should play well in Great American Ball Park.
He also finishes up in good fielding position, which when paired with his athleticism should enable him to field his position very well and ultimately could net him a Gold Glove or two.
I'm on the record as preferring Shelby Miller and I'm standing by that one, but the more I think about the Mike Leake pick, the more I like it. It makes a lot of sense for where the Reds are as an organization. They already have two high upside young starting pitchers at the MLB level in Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, so going with the polished, low risk pitching prospect makes sense, especially in light of the struggles of some of the high upside arms already in the system. Leake should be able to move quickly and be in Cincinnati sooner rather than later. While he probably won't be a number one starter at the MLB level, he could be a solid MLB pitcher and it could happen in a hurry.