Prior to the 2021 season, the last time that Lucas Luetge appeared in the majors was 2015, when he pitched 2.1 scoreless innings for the Seattle Mariners. He then bounced around multiple minor league systems for the next five years before eventually signing a minor league contract with a non-roster invite to spring training with the New York Yankees.
The rest, as they say, is history. After impressing the club throughout spring training, the 34-year-old journeyman found himself in possession of a coveted roster spot in one of the best bullpens in the league. Rather than simply being a throwaway relief arm, however, Luetge quickly earned the trust of Aaron Boone and transformed himself into one of the Yankees’ most consistent relievers this season.
2021 Statistics: 57 games, 72.1 IP, 2.74 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 3.66 xFIP, 9.71 K/9, 1.87 BB/9, 1.5 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Entering first year of arbitration eligibility
I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t realize just how good Luetge was for the Yankees this year. I don’t think I realized he threw that many innings — he actually ranks second amongst relievers behind relief workhorse Chad Green — and I certainly didn’t realize just how effective he was in those innings. To say Luetge flew under-the-radar this year would probably be the understatement of 2021. And, on the surface, it would appear that he had no business being as good as he was this year. I mean, his stuff doesn’t exactly jump off the charts, right?
Well, if you thought like I did, you’d be wrong. Look at this work of art that is otherwise known as his 2021 MLB percentile rankings:
Be honest. Before reading this article, would you have believed me if I told you that Luetge ranked in the above average/great/elite range in 13 of the 15 Statcast categories? I certainly wouldn’t have believed myself. Yet, here we are, and we all know the numbers don’t lie. In fact, compare his percentile rankings to those of Jonathan Loáisiga, who we just discussed a couple days ago. They look fairly similar, eh?
Rather than focus on the elite rates, however, I want to talk about the most interesting aspect of this all: his fastball velocity. For the season, Luetge’s fastball hovered around the high 80s, occasionally topping out in the very low 90s. The fact that he was able to be so effective despite having what would traditionally be perceived as a below-average fastball is simply remarkable in a day and age where it seems like every reliever throws in the high 90s.
Okay, now for the elite stuff. The short version of all of this is that Luetge was so effective because he simply did not give up hard contact. Thanks in part to great movement on his cutter, slider, and curveball, hitters were unable to barrel him up, and he certainly helped his case by having one of the lowest walk rates across MLB. And, speaking of his curveball, he was able to get a ton of hitters to chase it out of the zone. His hot-cold zones for his breaking pitches is another work of art:
To me, the only thing holding Luetge back from an even better grade is his lack of usage in high leverage situations. Of his 72.1 innings pitched, only 6.1 innings are considered high leverage innings, and he had poor results in that small sample size. With that being said, every single bullpen that even hopes of being successful needs a Lucas Luetge — a guy who can eat up a ton of low-to-medium leverage innings and be extremely effective while doing so. Aside from a few blow-ups throughout the season — two in June against the Red Sox and Angels, and one in August against the White Sox — Luetge proved to be one of the most improbably consistent relief arms for the Yankees in recent memory.
To put things into perspective, in 111 major league games from 2012 to 2015, Luetge pitched to a 4.35 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 7.48 K/9, and 4.75 B/9 across 89 innings. He then spent the next five years bouncing from minor league system to minor league system. So, to turn in the season that Luetge just did at thirty-four years of age after such a lengthy absence from major league action is nothing short of remarkable.