Entering camp as a non-roster invitee who hasn’t spent a day on a major league roster since 2015, nearly 34-year-old Lucas Luetge had a small chance to make the Yankees’ 40-man, let alone earn any regular season innings for the club. Though aptly named for the role, MLB’s recent addition of a three-out minimum for any reliever undermined Luetge’s value as a LOOGY, making his path back to the majors even less likely.
However, through five spring appearances with the Yankees, Lucas Luetge is on pace to turn some heads. While of course, many a fool have been made of overreactions to a couple of spring training outings, it’s very, very hard to strike out 11 of 18 batters faced on accident. Across five full innings, Luetge has yet to allow a single run, while permitting just a single base on balls to go along with two singles.
Although the later innings of spring training games are usually reserved for teams’ weakest talent, he’s not just picking on players with equal or lesser big league experience. Luetge’s current list of strikeout victims includes veritable big leaguers like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Andrew McCutchen, Didi Gregorius, and Bryce Harper.
In past years, Luetge had been typecast as a LOOGY for good reason — in his previous 89 career major league innings, he’d limited lefties to just a 56 OPS+, but allowed a 137 OPS+ to righties. However, this spring, Luetge’s handled just about everyone with ease, as 7 of his 11 strikeouts have come against righties, limiting batters from either side to a WHIP below 0.7.
Even with all of the spring training caution tape, Luetge’s late-career improvement might be sustainable given his improved underlying metrics. Yankees skipper Aaron Boone gushed about Luetge’s slider to Sports Illustrated’s Max Goodman, saying “It’s a really good breaking ball, it’s a swing-and-miss breaking ball. He’s got all the spin numbers that take you back a little bit. Even though he’s not overpowering with the fastball, the fastball really plays as well.”
As CBS Sports’ Mike Axisa tells it, Boone’s claims ring true through the spring training pitch data. Luetge has radically boosted the spin rate on each of his three offerings to well past the MLB average, especially his slider, giving them a late life that has left anyone lucky enough to watch him toss in person awestruck.
Although the Yankees added another left-hander in steady veteran Justin Wilson, they just lost one as well with Zack Britton going under the knife. His three-to-four-month recovery timeline from surgery to remove a bone chip in his throwing elbow opens up the setup role for Wilson, which leaves a vacancy in the team’s middle-relief corps.
Now that Britton is out, after Aroldis Chapman and Wilson, the only other lefty currently projected to make the Yankee bullpen (per FanGraphs Depth Charts) is fellow 33-year-old non-roster invitee Tyler Lyons. Though he’s spent time on a major league roster in every season since 2013, Lyons hasn’t finished a season with an ERA below six since his 54-inning 2017 season, including a lone, miserable 1.2-inning outing for the Yankees last year which generated a 21.6 ERA. With his velocity dropping precipitously from his peak at just above 90 mph, Lyons’ average fastball in 2020 was all the way down to 87.8 mph with well below average spin, a tasty offering for any well-seasoned hitter.
While Lyons has been fine so far in his spring outings (2.45 ERA, 1.64 WHIP), his performance to date has been qualitatively and quantitatively inferior to that of Luetge’s. In terms of roster building, if Lyons is out, Luetge is almost certainly in, should the Yankees choose to add another lefty to the bullpen and keep the loser of the Deivi García/Domingo Germán fifth-starter battle off the roster until needed. If Luetge can keep up his preseason dominance, the Yankees will have no choice but to give him a shot by the time April comes around.