Mike Leake doesn’t feel like he has done his job unless he has logged at least seven innings. He said that’s how long Little League and high school games are, and should be the standard for a starting pitcher.
PEORIA, Ariz. — What Mike Leake does on the mound this season really doesn’t matter. At least that’s the mentality he has tried to adopt.
The Mariners starting pitcher used to beat himself up mentally and physically until he reached a breaking point.
Toward the end of the 2016 season, Leake developed shingles, which he is convinced was due to stress. He would pitch with rage, pound the weights relentlessly and generally teem with anxiety.
It wasn’t healthy and he knew it. So he made some changes. The biggest one? Understanding he was just playing a game.
“I needed to chill out. I was killing myself in a way,” said the right-handed Leake, whom the Mariners acquired from the Cardinals last August. “I needed to be able to take a deep breath, relax and realize, in a way, how unimportant baseball is.”
Don’t read that as Leake opting not to give his best effort. The 30-year-old just felt that shift in attitude was necessary for him to be a productive pitcher.
Sticking with his old approach, he thought, ran the risk of him “ending up as a statistic” — something his career-high earned-run average of 4.69 two years ago attested to.
So he backed off the weightlifting. He took steps to clear his mind. And last year, he posted a solid ERA of 3.92 over 186 innings, including a dazzling five-game stretch with the Mariners.
“It’s just a commitment to a plan,” said Leake, who threw two scoreless innings against the White Sox on Saturday. “I’ve been able to relax with the pitches rather than be so angry with them or forceful.”
Not that the calmer, cooler Leake has seen a dip in his competitive zeal. M’s manager Scott Servais said that, upon his acquisition, Leake declared his desire to rack up 200 innings.
So when he gets yanked early, he can get a little grumpy. Servais has seen it firsthand.
“He doesn’t like when you pull him out of a game,” Servais said. “And he’ll let you know. He let me know last year — and that’s cool.”
Leake doesn’t feel like he has done his job unless he has logged at least seven innings. He said that’s how long Little League and high school games are, and should be the standard for a starting pitcher.
If he averages seven this year and makes all his starts, he’ll clear the 200-inning bar easily. The Mariners would like that. Actually, the Mariners basically need that.
This isn’t a team dripping with talent like the Astros or Dodgers. The margin for error is slim, and a player such as Leake having a career season is almost compulsory if Seattle wants to end its 17-year playoff drought.
In his five starts with the M’s last year, he went 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA over 32 innings. He didn’t overwhelm hitters with his power, but essentially outthought them.
If James Paxton stays healthy, Felix Hernandez recovers some of his old form and Leake picks up where he left off last season, the Mariners are suddenly formidable at the top of the rotation. Not that Leake is going to stress himself out over that prospect.
Preparing for his ninth season in the majors, the former Arizona State star seems to have found peace. He still wants to maximize his potential but is acutely aware of how lucky he is.
“At the end of the day, our ancestors went through quite a bit.” Leake said. “I think I can get through some baseball pangs.”
Healthy perspective from the Mariners’ workhorse. Hopefully he can maintain it. Leake may know that baseball is ultimately unimportant, but he’ll be critically important to his team’s success.