While 2021 was a disappointing year for Yankee fans, filled with many issues, the Yankees’ bullpen proved to be a bright spot. Specifically, spring non-roster invitee Lucas Luetge became a valuable contributor out of the Yankee bullpen throughout the season. While the southpaw was just one of the low-cost, high-efficiency finds that GM Brian Cashman added during the 2021 season, Luetge’s success was among the most remarkable.
Luetge made his professional debut during the 2012 season and pitched through 2015 with the Mariners. Then from 2016 until the 2021 season, he was with five different organizations and spent the entirety of these years in the minor leagues as he entered his thirties. The Yankees signed Luetge to a minor league contract before the 2021 season, and after an impressive spring training, he made the team. While in the minor leagues, the lefty reinvented himself, removing his changeup, sinker, and four-seam fastball from his 2015 repertoire. (I have included his career pitch mix below for reference.) When Luetge debuted with the Yankees, he threw a cutter, slider, and curveball.
During the 2021 campaign, all of Luetge’s pitches were above league average in at least one aspect. His curveball was his best pitch for movement; it was above league average in vertical and horizontal movement. His slider was also above league-average in both vertical and horizontal movement. Finally, his cutter was above-league average in horizontal movement, averaging 4.8 inches of horizontal break.
Luetge’s curve was also his best pitch for expected batting average (.087) and expected slugging (.112). His cutter was his second-best pitch, with an expected batting average (.272) and expected slugging (.384). Finally, during the 2021 season, Luetge used his cutter the most (62.0%), followed by his slider (22.7%) and his curveball (15.2%).
However, through eight appearances this season, Luetge has changed his pitch usage slightly, but his spin rates have also changed. This season, Luetge has increased his cutter usage (73.9%) and decreased his curveball usage (2.7%). While eight games are undoubtedly too small of a sample to draw season-long conclusions, it is clear that Luetge has changed his pitch mix to increase his cutter usage. Increased cutter usage or development appears to be a trend for many Yankee pitchers. My fellow Pinstripe Alley writer Peter Brody recently wrote two articles about the Yankees’ increased use of cutters this season. You can find the article covering Luetge’s cutter here.
Luetge’s cutter is particularly interesting this year because of his near-100 RPM increase in its average spin rate. In the 2021 season, Luetge averaged 2554 RPMs on his cutter, but so far this season, Luetge is averaging 2646 RPMs, the third-highest average spin rate for any cutter in Major League Baseball (minimum of 50 cutters thrown).
Below, I have included clips of other elite cutters in the league. First is defending NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes, who is sixth in cutter spin rate, and he has thrown the most cutters than any other pitcher this season.
Burnes’ cutter sits around 95 mph, while Luetge’s is limited to the upper-80s, around 88mpg as seen in the clip below. Burnes’ cutter ranks 15th in the league in horizontal movement and 18th in the league in vertical movement. This allows his cutter to move 1.4 inches more right-to-left than a league-average cutter, while also having 1.4 inches less of vertical drop.
In other words, Burnes’ cutter will have an above-average right-to-left movement without seeing the pitch drop as much as the cutters thrown by either Luetge or Atlanta reliever A.J. Minter, who we’ll examine in a little bit.
Luetge’s cutter in the clip above could easily be mistaken as a slider, if not for the pitch identification provided by Statcast. Luetge’s cutter is ninth in horizontal movement, moving 2.2 more inches from left-to-right than the average cutter. At the same time, Luetge’s cutter is roughly league average in vertical movement. So Luetge’s cutter is thrown in such a way as to maximize the left-to-right movement.
Compared to Burnes’ cutter, Luetge’s will drop more, but it will also have slightly better side-to-side movement, and a higher spin rate. Overall, his cutter appears to act even more like a breaking pitch than Burnes’ cutter due to the pitch’s drop. However, Burnes’ ability to prevent his cutter from dropping while keeping its horizontal movement is definitely an asset that makes his cutter devastating.
Next up for comparison is reliever A.J. Minter of the Braves, who is seventh in spin, third in horizontal movement, and a fellow lefty.
Minter’s cutter could also be confused with a power slider if not for Statcast. Again, we see good left-to-right movement, but with a bit more velocity than Luetge. The 28-year-old’s cutter sits in the low-90s, hitting 92 in the clip above. To date, Minter is third in horizontal movement, but very below-average in vertical movement. From the clip above, we can see the good vertical movement that Minter’s cutter produces, but the camera angle doesn’t appear to suggest as much drop. Minter’s cutter and Luetge’s appear the most similar to my eye. They show good left-to-right movement and their drop make them easy to mistake for a slider.
These cutters all share above-average horizontal movement, which causes them to look more like sliders and less like traditional cutters. While Luetge and Minter can get more side-to-side movement, compared to Burnes, he can get more velocity and less vertical drop on his cutter. For Luetge, the addition of his cutter and its improved movement and spin make this pitch a valuable weapon for him. He can throw three pitches — a slider, curve, and cutter — that all behave like traditional breaking balls. This can be especially deceptive given his cutter’s slider-like movement. If Luetge can continue to use this cutter to his advantage, using it and his slider interchangeably, he could be a very useful weapon out of the ‘pen once again in 2022.