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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Lucas Luetge

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Lucas Luetge appears to be extremely close to an improbable spot on the Yankees’ 2021 Opening Day roster. Can he continue to impress enough to hang on?

2021 New York Yankees Photo Day Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Almost a decade removed from his 2012 professional debut, Lucas Luetge seems to be peaking in 2021 at 34-years-old. Through nine spring appearances, Luetge has done everything in his power to exceed any expectations set out for the non-roster invitee. With a fastball barely capable of eclipsing 90 mph, Luetge has employed his frisbee-like slider to the devastating effect of making major league vets and roster spot hopefuls alike look as though they ought to consider a new profession entirely.

2021 Spring Training Stats: 10.1 IP, 1.74 ERA, 0.968 WHIP, 15.7 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 1.7 HR/9, SO/BB 9.00

2021 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projection: 20.0 IP, 4.74 ERA, 4.95 FIP, 9.17 K/9, 3.81 BB/9, 1.64 HR/9, .309 BABIP, 73.1 BABIP, 0.0 WAR

The Yankees seem to be in clear need of another lefty in their bullpen thanks to injuries sustained by Zack Britton and Justin Wilson, and no eligible southpaw in the team’s camp has even sniffed Luetge’s production to date. While there are certainly reasons to abstain from anointing Luetge the next great Yankee reliever just yet, he’s been too dominant to presume that his successes so far are a total fluke.

One of those reasons, however, is the quality of opposing batter that Luetge’s faced so far. By assigning a numerical value from 1-10 to every level of professional baseball, from rookie ball to the majors, OppQual can give a general sense of what kinds of opponents a player has faced during exhibition games. For example, as the team’s ace, regularly starting against opposing teams’ nearly normal-looking lineups, Gerrit Cole has earned an OppQual of 8.0 this spring.

Compared to Cole’s rating, Luetge’s 5.7 OppQual takes some of the sheen off of his stellar start. Still, even the lowest-level of professional hitting is no joke, and Luetge has struck out batters from every level at Chapman-esque rates.

Further, the spin and movement on Luetge’s slider seem to back up the optics of it being utterly filthy. Last Saturday, during Luetge’s most recent outing, his slider possessed an average spin rate of 2835 rpm. In 2020, that mark would have been the sixth-best average spin of any pitcher in the majors.

While active spin and spin direction give equally important information about a pitch’s quality, the average spin can relay a sense of a pitch’s maximum power, much like horsepower for an engine. Torque, braking power, and handling are essential for a high-performance vehicle, and horsepower is an excellent place to start when thinking about the overall power that a car can access. Without active spin and spin direction metrics available during spring training, it’s impossible to say exactly how Luetge’s slider compares to the game’s very best, but from all the available information right now, he compares favorably to almost anyone.

Additionally, in Luetge’s most recent major league stint, a not-so-recent six years ago, his slider averaged just 1975 rpm. Luetge seems to have made some substantive changes to the pitch since then that is tangibly affecting his results with it for the better.

Britton is out at least a couple months, though Wilson is already throwing and on the mend. So Luetge will probably have a finite — but extended — opportunity to prove his mettle in the majors. If the Yankees don’t select him, they’ll still be able to hold onto him at the alternate site, as he doesn’t have an opt-out in his contract until June. The smart money says that Luetge will make the Opening Day cut, with the Yankees clearing room for him by perhaps transferring Britton to the 60-day injured list.

Regardless of the ultimate roster decision, If Luetge can continue to pitch as he has throughout camp, the Yankees will likely be forced to give him a shot at some point. If they do, they might just find themselves with an embarrassment of riches in the bullpen, something they haven’t been able to legitimately claim since 2018.

Update:

Luetge has indeed cracked the Yankees’ Opening Day roster. Good for him.