Boasting a 40-6 record during his tenure at ASU, earning him a tie for most career wins in school history by a three-year player, Leake added 360 strikeouts and a 2.91 career ERA during his days in maroon and gold.
With a legendary legacy already etched into Sun Devil lore, the Fallbrook, Calif., native skipped his senior season at ASU to enter the MLB Draft, but not without extending one final gesture of class to the Winkles-Packard-Brock faithful, extending a thank you letter on his own accord to Sun Devil fans through ASU’s athletics website.
On the heels of one of the most dominant performances by a college baseball player during the 2009 season, the player that wore jersey No. 8 at ASU was selected eighth overall by the Cincinnati Reds, creating high expectations for Leake as a top draft pick—though few would predict the speed with which those expectations would materialize.
After signing with the club last August, Leake made his debut with the Reds in the Arizona Fall League, completing 19.2 innings with a 1.37 ERA, with 15 strikeouts and only three walks. Following a spring training session in which he posted a 3.00 ERA with 10 strikeouts and four walks over 18 innings pitched, Leake shook the baseball world by being tabbed Cincinnati’s fifth starter to begin the season, becoming the first pitcher since Darren Dreifort in 1994 and the first overall player since Xavier Nady in 2000 to skip minor league action and immediately make a big league club after being drafted.
With a player such as top overall selection Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State—one of the most dominant collegiate pitchers of all time—headlining the draft it was completely unexpected that the scraggly-haired, undersized Leake would be the one stealing the show by sidestepping the need to cut his teeth in the minor leagues.
"It's kind of surreal right now," Leake said after being informed he had made the Reds’ starting rotation. "It has to soak in a little."
Leake made his debut against the Chicago Cubs on April 11, showing some natural shakiness by issuing seven walks over 6.2 innings, but was able to maintain his composure and struck out five and only allowed one earned run. Though he did not earn a decision in that contest, his ability to keep the Cubs grounded was ultimately profitable as the Reds prevailed, 3-1.
Showing a veteran’s mentality despite the fact that he won’t celebrate his 23rd birthday until after the 2010 season concludes and this time last year he was helping guide ASU to a third consecutive Pac-10 Championship, Leake’s leveled disposition has been one of his most useful traits over the course of his first two months of professional duty.
“The first start, I had a little jitters,” Leake told The Cincinnati Enquirer after his career debut. “[But] I'm serious with my work. To me, it's just been about business, just going out there and doing what I know how to do. I can't really take a step back and think about it. You want to keep moving forward."
In his third start, Leake earned his first career win against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 22 and followed that with another victory in his next appearance, at the Houston Astros. Eleven days later, he set a career high with six strikeouts in 7.0 innings to defeat the Chicago Cubs and a week later earned his fourth victory against the St. Louis Cardinals.
As Leake’s appearances have progressed, so have both his approach and demeanor, with his pitching repertoire becoming more diverse and capable of continuing to baffle major league hitters, while his confidence and tenacity also continue to rise. In less than two months, Leake has shown a savvy sense of intuition and poise far beyond his years by adapting and adjusting to the professional game and learning from each outing on the mound.
"I'm pitching basically against myself," Leake said. "It's me versus how many pitches I can be successful with. It's not necessarily me facing the batter; it's me facing the catcher's glove. I just try to make [batters] look silly up there as much as possible."
Though it is to be expected that a rookie that completely bypassed minor league service would carry a swagger and obvious confidence, Leake’s mentality of ferocity have been a blessing to the first-year wonder and provides him a an advantage, regardless the opponent in the batter’s box.
"Once I'm pitching, there's a different side to me," Leake said. "Around the clubhouse, I don't really have that attitude and I don't know where I got it from. It's kind of evolved. It's more like, don't mess with me.”
With his early-season efforts, Leake became the first Reds pitcher since 1976 to begin his major league career with a 4-0 record, and were it not for a complete meltdown by Cincinnati’s ninth-inning relief pitchers, his record would have improved to five wins on Thursday after he pitched 6.0 solid innings, allowing only one earned run. The game ended in ironic fashion for those that favor maroon and gold as another former Sun Devil, Brooks Conrad, smashed a walk-off grand slam off Reds’ closer Francisco Cordero to cap off a seven-run ninth inning and gain a comeback victory for the Atlanta Braves.
Technically the Reds’ fifth starter, Leake has thus far compiled a statistical resume that resembles that of a team’s ace, leading the Cincinnati staff in wins (four) and innings pitched (52.2), while also maintaining the second-lowest ERA on the team—and lowest among the Reds’ starters—at an excellent 2.91 average. Additionally, Leake has allowed the fewest hits, home runs and earned runs among Cincinnati’s primary starting rotation and has tossed 39 total strike outs over his first eight big league outings on the mound.
Also, as Sun Devil fans grew accustomed to during Leake’s three years in Tempe as a pitcher and utility player, he’s no slouch in the batter’s box and has continued to succeed at the plate, batting .353 (six-of-17) with one double for the Reds.
Though his early performances—especially under the lofty expectations that followed his express route to the majors—have caught many off guard, the unflappable Leake clearly never had intention to sift his way through the farm system, while Cincinnati’s skipper quickly learned not to underestimate the abilities of the former Sun Devil.
“I’m past being surprised (by Leake),” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “He’s a quick learner. He’s confident but not cocky. Like I said in spring training, he came there to make the team. He didn’t come [just to participate in his] first big-league camp. That says a lot for his confidence and his poise and his ability to learn and retain.”
Fans and coaches aren’t the only observers taking quick notice of Leake’s dynamic skill set, acumen for advancement and seemingly limitless potential, as opponents have openly tipped their cap to the youngster’s ability to control the ball game as Leake is quickly earning credibility and respect from both his teammates and peers.
"He's a crafty pitcher," Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker said after Leake earned a victory over St. Louis on April 15. "He kept the ball down, he used all his pitches and he was very effective because he changed speeds. When he had to, he made pitches to get out of the inning. There's a reason why he skipped the Minor Leagues."
A gritty competitor from a winning baseball environment at Arizona State, Mike Leake solidified his stance as one of the elite Sun Devil baseball players in the history of the program during his time in Tempe and between the excellent intangibles he provides and the body of work he has submitted during the start to his professional career, Leake is on the path to sticking a pitchfork into the baseball world and stake his claim as one of the premier young players in the major leagues.