Success only motivates Leake further
When Opportunity Calls: Pitcher at home in Reds clubhouse
CLEVELAND -- The notion of going from college to the Majors never intimidated pitcher Mike Leake. Neither did the heightened attention and added pressure. Even facing Albert Pujols didn't create the slightest of nervous pangs.Leake seized his opportunity in Spring Training to become the fifth starter in the Reds' rotation, and his profile since then has zoomed into orbit like the space shuttle. In fact, the right-hander has been his team's best starter with a 4-0 record and 2.91 ERA while displaying maturity and intelligence that would normally seem beyond a 22-year-old. "It's tough for me to get intimidated," Leake said. "I'm more of a self-competitor rather than competing against people. For example, people worry about or ask questions about who you're facing. Say it's Pujols -- I'm not really worried about facing him. I'm worried about hitting the glove." Over his eight starts, Leake has pitched at least six innings each time and has seven quality starts. On top of that, he's batting .353. It's still quite early, but Leake has given Braves outfielder Jason Heyward strong competition for the National League Rookie of Year race. "I've had success throughout my years that I expect success out of myself," Leake said. "I don't expect it to be easy. I expect to get over little bumps in the road. I expect to find a way to get through anything. That's how my parents brought me up -- to fight through things. It's not expectations from other people. It's expectations for myself. It's self-motivation." During a season in which overwhelming attention has been lavished on promising power pitchers not yet in the Majors, including the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg and the Reds' own Aroldis Chapman, Leake was until recently barely a blip on the radar. Unlike those pitchers, Leake lacks the usually desired size as he stands 5-foot-10 and about 175 pounds. A sinkerballer with average velocity that peaks at 91-92 mph, he won't blow hitters away. But he goes to the mound with a plan and has been smart enough to adjust quickly before hitters can figure him out. "He's probably the closest guy I've ever played with that pitched like me," veteran Reds starter Bronson Arroyo said. "He can basically throw any pitch in any count, work both sides of the plate hard and soft, and our velocity is similar. The one difference is he's a much better sinkerball pitcher. He can live off his fastball a little more than me. I actually enjoy watching him pitch more than anybody I've ever played with. It's fun to say, 'Let's see how he's going to beat this team today with that stuff that's not super great.'" When Leake beat out Chapman and prospect Travis Wood for the fifth spot in Reds camp, he became only the 21st drafted player since 1965 to skip the Minors and debut in the Majors. The last starting pitcher to do it was Jim Abbott with the Angels in 1989. During his brief time with Cincinnati, Leake has been outwardly quiet but has displayed a confidence that he knows he belongs and can be successful. His performances back up his personality and have earned the respect of the Reds clubhouse. "To be able to slide right in and feel almost like you have at least a year of service time before this and find his way, it's ridiculous," Arroyo said. "This locker room is conducive to that. He's come into an absolutely perfect situation. ... To come into an environment where there are a lot of young guys and the older guys we have are pretty cool when it comes to the pecking order of the game and stuff they could do to young guys, you can't get a better situation than this." The Reds are just learning the depths of Leake's character, but some got their first inkling when he arrived at their new Goodyear, Ariz., complex last year during the Arizona Fall League. The finishing touches were still being applied by workers, and Leake grabbed some tools and helped install some shelving in the clubhouse. "I get bored pretty easily. I try to find things to do that keep me amused," Leake said. "Plus my dad and I used to build houses together. I would pitch in with my dad. I think it's helped me want to do other little projects." One of those projects is what Leake did with some of his $2.27 million signing bonus. He bought a house at auction near Goodyear and fixed it up as an investment property. Leake used to live in a bungalow on the property of his Arizona State head coach, Pat Murphy. One day, Murphy discovered that Leake's bungalow suddenly had a new porch, built by his tenant. "He said, 'I came home and thought it'd look nice.' He never asked me," Murphy said. Once when Leake's hair got too long, Murphy asked him to cut it to conform to team standards. Leake buried the pile of cut hair in a hole behind the mound at the ASU baseball field. "It's still there today," said Murphy, who is now a consultant for the Padres. He calls or sends text messages with Leake after each of his starts. But when it came to baseball and performance on the field, Leake was all business -- always. That's why none of his current success surprises people back at Arizona State, where their ace was 40-6 with a 2.91 ERA in three seasons and a two-time Pac-10 pitcher of the year that helped lead the team to College World Series berths in 2007 and '09. After he was 16-1 with a 1.71 ERA last season for ASU, the Reds made Leake the eighth overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft -- but he didn't pitch after signing in August. In comparison, Strasburg was 13-1 with a 1.35 ERA for San Diego State, but was the first overall pick that got a $15 million big league contract. "A kid that believes he can do it is a dangerous thing in competition," Murphy said. "Mike always felt like an underdog. I think it spurred him on a little bit. It's great to see a good kid with a good family and an academic All-American get his due and opportunity." Leake was the ASU captain his final two seasons, and although he had a reputation as a prankster, he wasn't afraid to flex his leadership muscle. The trappings of college life -- namely drinking alcohol -- rarely seduced him or distracted him from winning. "You might call him quirky," said Murphy, who had Dustin Pedroia, Andre Ethier and Ike Davis on his teams in recent years. "Teammates didn't always understand him, but he's about doing things the right way. He could be tough on teammates in his own way. He'd call them out if they partied too much. He was all about getting to the World Series. But they respected him so much because he went out there every single weekend and gave us seven innings or better." Arizona State assistant sports information director Randy Policar remembered thinking Leake would be special the moment he stepped on campus. "In 2007, even as a true freshman when we had more veteran guys, people would look to him and say, 'What's Mike thinking or doing?'" Policar said. "He was 40-6 and can probably remember all six losses, but few of the 40 wins. He hates to lose and not just games. He doesn't like giving up hits. He was a little more mature than everyone else. He may not have been the most popular guy or the guy that would hit the bars. He wasn't like that. He always had an adult quality to him. When other guys were playing cards, he'd be reading books. Others played video games or stuff, and we'd talk about life. It wasn't that he's not one of the guys, he just had higher aspirations -- not just about baseball but life in general." Leake remains in frequent touch with former teammates at ASU and often seeks the counsel of his older brother Ryan, the pitching coach at the University of California-San Diego. Leake credits his brother for keeping him grounded and helping him take on a "nothing bothers me" mentality. "There was block in the road where my brother basically told me to stop being a little baby and move on," said Leake, who makes his next start Tuesday vs. the Pirates. One question is whether Leake's arm can handle the big league workload late into his first professional season. The Reds monitor his pitch counts, and despite always working deep in games, he rarely goes beyond 100 pitches per start. "If there is extra day's rest in there, we give it to him," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "You don't know how he's going to be in August or September because he's never been to August or September. We'll take his April and May. Hopefully we take care of him so he'll still be strong in August and September." Another question is how opposing teams will adjust to Leake as he goes through the league a second time. You could say it was optimistic sign that he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning during his second meeting vs. the Cubs on May 9. "Even if he has some bumps in the road now, he'll always be able to look back at this point of the season when he dominated for seven or eight good starts in a row," Arroyo said. "He'll always know there is light at the end of the tunnel and that he can get back to that, because he's done it before."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.