No one expected Lucas Luetge to make the big league team out of camp, let alone remain on the roster for the entire 162 games. And yet, that’s exactly what the veteran left hander did. An incredible Grapefruit League performance turned heads and earned him a spot on the Yankees’ Opening Day roster. Luetge rewarded the team’s faith with a 2.74 ERA and 2.84 FIP across 72.1 innings.
On paper, the Yankees’ bullpen looked terrific entering 2021. They didn’t need much more help with the likes of Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Chad Green, and Jonathan Loáisiga expected to handle the late innings. Things changed over time due to injuries (Britton) and performance variations (Chapman), but for the most part, the back-end of the bullpen didn’t need help. So when Luetge proved to be very effective, albeit more so in the middle frames rather than late in games, the rich got richer.
He was supposed to be a forgettable NRI
I barely gave Luetge a thought when I summarized the team’s non-roster invitees to major league spring training way back in February:
Other ex-big leaguers of note: Lucas Luetge, Kyle Barraclough, Jhoulys Chacín, Luis García, Asher Wojciechowski, and Reggie McClain.
I wouldn’t expect any significant contributions from these guys, but Barraclough and García are interesting relief arms.
I mean, what was I supposed to say about a guy who hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2015? In fact, Luetge appeared in just one game in 2015 and 12 the year before. The vast majority of his workload was in 2012 and 2013 (98 games). That was nearly a decade ago.
It’s not like Luetge was a super talented arm who simply couldn’t stay healthy all these years. He owned a 4.35 ERA in 89 big league innings for Seattle, didn’t miss too many bats (19.0 percent strikeout rate), and walked way too many batters (12.1 percent). For the most part, Luetge toiled in the minors from 2015 through 2019 with five different organizations: the Mariners, Angels, Orioles, Reds, and Diamondbacks. He actually got a brief call-up with the Angels in ’16, but didn’t appear in a game before getting DFA’d after three days on the roster. Fast forward to 2020: he spent the season at Oakland’s Alternate Site.
In spite of what seemed like a nondescript career as organizational depth, the Yankees apparently had their eyes on Luetge for some time. The team wanted to sign him before the 2020 campaign, but Luetge chose the A’s because he foresaw a better opportunity.
Spin rate monster
The Yankees clearly knew what they were getting into. Or, at least had some idea that Luetge could be a diamond in the rough. The rest of us took notice midway through spring training when the lefty was dominant. He struck out 8 of the first 11 hitters he faced, including an impressive sequence against Andrew McCutchen, Didi Gregorius, and Bryce Harper.
Luetge finished Grapefruit League action with 18 strikeouts to 2 walks in 10.1 innings, a performance that put him on the Opening Day roster.
As great as the spring training stats were, what we couldn’t publicly glean were Luetge’s terrific spin rates. We saw all the swings and misses, especially on his slider and curveball, but couldn’t exactly point to how that was happening. But as the regular season got underway, it was evident that Luetge could really spin it.
The Yankees undoubtedly had an affinity for Luetge due because of his elite spin rates, at least in part. But how did the league’s crackdown on foreign substances affect the southpaw?
Big, big dips, which makes it pretty safe to assume he used some sort of grip enhancer. He was still way above average, though. League average four-seam spin rate after enforcement was announced was 2,247 RPM, whereas Luetge still sat north of 2,500. MLB sliders averaged 2,390 RPM, but Luetge still pushed 2,750. Lastly, his curveball still sat above 2,600 RPM, whereas the league’s was 2,480. Point is: this was a natural skill that Luetge possessed and the Yankees would likely have been keen on even if there were no foreign substances involved.
A trusty middle reliever
High spin rates are great and all, but they don’t automatically make for a good pitcher. More spin should correlate well with results, hence the Yankees’ initial interest in Luetge, but results needed to follow for him to stick around. The sooner, the better.
Looking back at his game log, Luetge may have actually been walking the tight rope early on. He allowed at least one run in each of his first five games (6.10 ERA), though he delivered two strong long relief outings within that span. The 34 year-old went on a roll thereafter, though. He didn’t allow a run from April 20th through May 16th (10 games, 11 innings), and over time, became one of Aaron Boone’s entrusted relievers.
By June, Luetge started to pitch in more important spots.
June turned out to be Luetge’s worst month in terms of ERA (4.40), though that mark is skewed by his June 30th appearance in which he gave up three runs in 0.2 innings.
For the most part, Luetge continued to pitch in average to above average leverage situations the rest of the season (i.e. gmLI of 1 or more), with a few games at the end of August being the exception. He never was one of Boone’s go to late inning guys, as there were plenty of options above the lefty in the pecking order. But that’s not a slight against Luetge, who turned out to be a terrific option in the middle innings, something the Yankees found very useful as the season went on.
Luetge and the Yankees avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one year, $905,000 contract for the 2022 season. He figures to be in the same relief role next season. That said, as reliable as he was in 2021, Luetge will need to maintain his breakout into next season. He’s not at the stage of his career where the Yankees can wait around for him to figure things out if he struggles, especially because he has no minor league options. I’m not looking to ring the alarm or anything, as there’s plenty of reason to believe in Luetge remaining good in 2022. Just pointing out the reality for any mid-30s middle reliever.