The New York Yankee You’ve Never Heard Of

Lucas Luetge
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Babe Ruth. Lou Gehrig. Mickey Mantle. Lucas Luetge.

The New York Yankees have adorned their roster with stars for the past 100 years or so, and this season is no different. However, one relatively anonymous lefty reliever squeaked onto the Opening Day roster. Luetge, a 34-year-old non-roster invitee, will make his first major league appearance since 2015 after a dominant Spring Training.

Meet Lucas Luetge

Luetge’s minor league history is as long and messy as an NJ Transit train schedule. He was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 21st round of the 2008 draft, then joined the Seattle Mariners as a Rule 5 pick in 2011. He spent the next four years pinballing between the majors and triple-A, mixing a curveball and slider with a milquetoast 90 mph fastball. From 2016-2020, he bounced through five organizations– with a Tommy John surgery mixed in– never coming near the surface until he landed an opportunity with the Yankees this spring.

To be blunt, his numbers haven’t been impressive anywhere in his 13-year professional career. It’s a testament to perseverance as well as MLB’s perpetual need for lefty arms. His major league strikeout rate is merely 19.0%, which was 3.4 points below the MLB average for lefty relievers from 2012-2015. Those were his numbers ages 25-28, when he was in his theoretical prime.

Pitchers aren’t supposed to magically improve in their mid-30s. Without a deeper dive, this would appear to be a desperate move for the Yankees, who lost southpaws Zack Britton and Justin Wilson to the injured list. Nevertheless, the Spring Training numbers indicate Luetge picked up some new tricks either at the 2020 Oakland A’s alternate site or during the intervening offseason, and he’s ready for his second act.

Turning Heads

Luetge’s last MLB stint may be far in the rearview, but he only struck out 74 of 389 batters faced. In Spring Training this year, he whiffed an incredible 18 of 37, including two walks and eight hits, albeit with two home runs. His 15.7 K/9 was more than double his 7.5 mark all those years ago in Seattle.

Here are the 2021 MLB Spring Training strikeout leaders among relief pitchers:

  1. James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians, 21 strikeouts in 10 ⅓ innings
  2. David Bednar, Pittsburgh Pirates, 18 strikeouts in 8 ⅔ innings
  3. Lucas Luetge, New York Yankees, 18 strikeouts in 10 ⅓ innings

Karinchak is one of the most prolific strikeout artists in MLB, so it’s no surprise to see him atop this leaderboard. Bednar is totally out of nowhere, so he’s an interesting name to watch this season. Luetge has no business anywhere near this leaderboard based on the back of his baseball card.

Statcast captured 148 of his pitches this spring, and his pitch mix doesn’t appear to have changed much. He topped out at 92 mph, mostly working in the 88-90 range. He threw 45 percent fastballs and 41 percent sliders, interweaving those two pitches until he achieves a two-strike count. Then comes a big, sweeping curveball to finish batters off. He only threw 20 hooks all spring but generated seven swinging strikes and five foul balls. No one put the pitch in play whatsoever.

His velocity may be underwhelming, but that rarely tells the whole story for a pitcher. Here are his average spin rates on each of his pitches this spring:

  • Fastball- 2,689 rpm
  • Slider- 2,826 rpm
  • Curveball- 2,827 rpm

Those numbers aren’t quite off the charts, but they definitely stretch the limits of the graph paper. His curveball spin rate would have been 86th percentile in MLB last year. The slider would have been the sixth-best in MLB (minimum 50 pitches). The fastball is a little harder to quantify. Statcast classifies it as a four-seamer. If that’s the case, his spin rate would have been sixth-best in MLB. A few weeks ago, The New York Post described it as a cutter, in which case it’s “only” 85th percentile-caliber spin.

Is all that really good enough to get batters out? Let’s ask the Philadelphia Phillies.

How about you, Randal Grichuk? That curve working okay?

Luetge last pitched in the majors so long ago that there isn’t any Statcast data to compare his 2021 Spring Training numbers to the kind of pitcher he used to be. These spin rates are much more supportive of his stellar spring than the quadruple-A reliever he’s been for the past 13 years. The Yankees aren’t likely to retire his number number 63 like those of Ruth, Gehrig, and Mantle, but it does appear they’ve found a quality reliever for 2021.

Players mentioned: Babe Ruth. Lou Gehrig. Mickey Mantle. Lucas Luetge, Zack Britton, Justin Wilson, James Karinchak, David Bednar, and Randal Grichuk

Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images