Depending on who you ask, Mike Leake was fighting to retain his spot in the Reds' starting rotation this Spring Training.
It's likely, though, that anyone who thought in March that Leake didn't deserve a spot in the rotation would deny having harbored such doubts.
Well, to save face. Leake, 25, has not only squelched those rumors, but he has outright embarrassed any doubting Thomases with his career-best 2.59 ERA to go along with his 10-4 record heading into Sunday's start. In fact, batters are only hitting .268 against the righty on balls in play -- and .245 overall.
If the cold, hard numbers don't convince you, then turn to the intangibles. Leake has been arguably the most consistent of the Reds' starting five over the course of the season. He's left the theatrics to Homer Bailey -- who tossed a no-hitter -- and Johnny Cueto -- whose lingering tightness in his right lat has kept Reds Country on edge.
In other words, Mike Leake has been the picture of quiet dominance this year.
"Probably just pitching better and mixing pitches up more," Leake said by way of explanation. "Last year, I was kind of only using certain pitches at certain counts. This year I kind of used all five pitches, and I'm able to think a little more clearly this year; [I'm] trying to not rely on the catcher as much as in the past."
Batterymate Devin Mesoraco agreed.
"I just think he's making better pitches," Mesoraco said. "His stuff has always been the same. He hasn't really invented anything new. He's making more quality pitches, he's not giving in and giving guys stuff to hit. He's still trying to go out there and make quality pitches. He's a smart guy, knows how to pitch and now he's going right after guys."
"I definitely feel like I'm not [as] scared to throw certain pitches as I was the last couple of years," Leake said.
That would be his curveball and changeup, to be specific. The San Diego native has thrown them 14 percent and 15.9 percent of the time this season, respectively. In 2012, he threw his curve 9.1 percent of the time and his changeup on 10.4 percent of his pitches. (Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs)
He's able to throw those pitches more often by not leaning on his backstop as often.
"I think I got back to relying on the catcher [last year]. I'm not doing it as much. I'm thinking for myself a little more than last year or the year before. When you come up as a rookie you kind of get that mentality, you're told if you shake [their signs off] they're going to be [mad] at you. So that probably got in my head a little bit the first couple of years.
"I've always been able to kinda see what hitters do, but I lost that the last few years by relying on the catcher," Leake explained. "This year, I'm seeming to find [that ability] back."
So, as a smoke-and-mirrors, finesse pitcher, is Leake underappreciated?
"I think numbers speak for themselves," Mesoraco said. "To put up whatever he has now [2.59] ERA-wise in this league is very, very hard.
"Everybody likes to see the Matt Harveys and Jose Fernandezes -- the guys that light up the radar gun, the guys that throw a hard breaking ball that will strike guys out. Mike doesn't do that. He doesn't strike a lot of guys out. He goes out there, tries to get them out in the first couple pitches. I'm sure that's part of the reason why he doesn't get as much pub as what some other guys do."
Whether or not he gets it, Mike Leake is definitely deserving of some publicity.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11.