With Opening Day just over a week away, the Yankees still have many questions left unanswered. Will the stopgap shortstop experiment work out? Will they get enough production out of catcher and center field? Will the starting rotation hold up across an entire season. Thankfully, there is one area that does not face the same uncertainty: the bullpen.
The Yankees’ relief corps was one of the lone bright sparks of last season, and projects to be the same in 2022 as they return the unit intact. Even more impressive is the way they built the bullpen on the fly, turning unheralded players into top-end relievers seemingly overnight. The transformative effect Matt Blake and his staff have exerted on the group bodes well not only for this season but for the future, as it allows the team to divest from the outdated and resource-restricting strategy of tying up large percentages of payroll in aging closer-types. Few Yankees relievers embody this new-school modus operandi of bullpen construction better than Lucas Luetge.
2021 Stats: 57 games, 72.1 IP, 2.74 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 3.66 xFIP, 1.13 WHIP, 25.9% K%, 5.0% BB%, 0.75 HR/9, 1.5 fWAR
2022 ZiPS Projections: 51 games, 62.3 IP, 4.19 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 1.25 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.44 HR/9, 0.4 fWAR
Luetge signed with the Yankees on a minor league deal in spring training and impressed as a non-roster invitee, striking out 18 in 10.1 innings while showcasing some of the nastiest stuff on the staff. He was selected to the major league roster and made his first MLB appearance in almost six years, pitching an inning against the Blue Jays on April 3rd.
By all accounts, he was one of the more effective relievers in baseball. He placed 11th in walk rate, 21st in FIP, and 22nd in fWAR, and was one of only 43 relievers leaguewide to achieve a K-BB% greater than 20 percent — one of the newer golden standards of pitcher evaluation.
He achieved this with pinpoint command of some of the filthiest pure stuff on the staff. He throws a 2,550 rpm cutter (97th percentile), a 2,650 rpm curveball (76th percentile), and a slider — the subject of experimentation this spring — all of which break in the same general direction but along varying axes and with a wide gap in overall movement. This makes it increasingly difficult for the hitter to identify and square up the ball, leading to top decile grades in hard hit, barrel, and chase rates.
Similar to the Clay Holmes discussion yesterday, Lucas Luetge is averaging 16 inches of horizontal movement on his slider this spring after averaging 8 inches in 2021. Expect a lot more of these as the season goes on. pic.twitter.com/C2nn8gBrxu— Lucas (@DBITLefty) March 24, 2022
I’d like to zoom in on that curveball for a moment, because it might be one of the best breakers in baseball. Whereas many pitchers specialize in either up-and-down breakers or side-to-side sweepers at the cost of sacrificing movement in the reciprocal direction, Luetge’s curveball is a rare case in that it achieves above-average movement for both its vertical and horizontal components.
Integrating the two components, Luetge’s curveball featured the 12th-most overall break (22.9 inches) of any curveball in baseball last year. It’s no surprise then that it produced some of the best results as well. Out of all the Uncle Charlie’s in the league, his curve achieved the second-highest strikeout rate (70 percent), third-lowest xwOBA (.086), and eighth-highest whiff rate (51.4 percent). Therefore, I find it puzzling that he only threw the pitch 15.2 percent of the time and wonder if he will feature it more this season given its outstanding track record.
Interestingly, the projection systems do not expect Luetge to maintain his effectiveness into the new season. They all forecast a dip in usage and a rise in walks, home runs, and ERA. In short, they don’t buy the gains he made last season, as if he was somehow punching above his weight. I don’t mind being the high man on Luetge and the other relievers who stepped into meaningful roles for the Yankees last season. I believe in the innovation Blake has brought to the pitching department and expect big things out of Luetge and the rest of the relief corps in 2022.