On July 1, Mets rookie Seth Lugo made his major league debut, pitching two scoreless frames against the Chicago Cubs in a 10-2 victory. Unlike those before him, this debut by a young Mets arm was not surrounded by a palpable buzz. The most notable part of Lugo’s debut, honestly, wasn’t even his performance, but that he became the ninth pitcher in team history to commit a balk in his first career game; Ron Darling committed two in his debut, for what that’s worth. He was a quirk in the Mets record books, and nothing more. Or so I thought.
Fast forward to September and the New York Mets are in the midst of a pennant race, something that wouldn’t be possible if not for the valiant efforts of Lugo. But how? How has a pitcher not even ranked in the team’s Top 30 prospects on MLB.com–nor anywhere else for that matter–with a career ERA of 4.28 in the minor leagues become so important for this baseball team?
It’s not like Lugo was a stats-over-scouting pop-up guy either. Lugo posted a 6.50 ERA this season in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, and the former 34th-round draft pick had not been overly impressive in the minor leagues over the past couple of years. As recently as last season when he was pitching in Double-A, Lugo’s fastball was sitting between 88-92 miles per hour with a plus curveball and a subpar change-up. In 19 starts for Binghamton and five starts in Vegas in 2015, Lugo combined to put up a 3.87 ERA with opponents batting .254 against him.
“It was the kind of profile you could see turning into a seventh inning fastball/curveball guy, with the hopes he would sit more 92-94 in short bursts,” BP Mets’ own Jeff Paternostro told me.
When he was first called up by the Mets earlier this season, Lugo sat mostly around 93 miles per hour with his fastball, but did occasionally dial it up to 95 at times, which caught my attention. Still, those moments were in brief relief outings. There was still no reason to expect Lugo to be able to maintain that velocity as a starting pitcher.
When the club originally tabbed Lugo to enter the starting rotation due to an injury to Steven Matz, it appeared as if the 2016 season was spiraling into an abyss. The Mets were 60-61, their worst record since early April. They were 12.5 games out of first place in the East, 5.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot, and turning to an unproven, unranked prospect to make a start against the Giants in San Francisco. While the Mets did go on to lose that night, the performance by Lugo was indeed encouraging, as the rookie allowed three earned runs over 6.7 innings pitched.
Since that moment, Lugo’s fastball has continued to look better and better, he’s improved in each and every start, and has come through for this team in big games against the Cardinals, Marlins, and Nationals. In his most recent start–a win against Washington–Lugo was incredibly impressive, allowing just one run in seven innings pitched. The right-hander spent most of the night hitting 94 miles per hour on his fastball with regularity, but really opened eyes when he dialed a pair of pitches to 96 and 97 in the late innings.
The improved fastball velocity–something that we see often from Mets pitchers making the jump to the majors from Triple-A–makes a big difference, but another pitch has gotten the most notice. Lugo’s curveball leads the majors (by quite a bit) in spin rate–the amount of rotation on a baseball after it’s released–but that hasn’t actually been his most impressive pitch at the big league level.
“While the huge spin makes him interesting, I don’t really think that’s entirely what’s making him successful, because he’s not throwing it all that much,” MLB.com Statcast Analyst Mike Petriello told me. “To me, it’s the fastball that somehow was still popping 96 in the seventh inning on Sunday, and the two-seamer that gets a lot of grounders.”
Yes, Lugo has gotten a lot of billing for having the best spin rate that MLB’s Statcast technology has ever recorded, and the opposition is hitting just .192 with a 35 percent strikeout percentage against his curveball, but right now, it has not been the key to his success. The curve gets the press, but the heater gets the job done. Thus far in his young major league career, Lugo has relied on his four- and two-seam fastball—while mixing in his curve and change-up—to pitch to contact. Through 41.7 innings the plan has worked, as opponents are batting .237 on balls put in play against him.
You could make the argument that Lugo has benefited from some pretty good batted ball luck (especially since the Mets’ defense isn’t very good), since he’s only averaging 6.91 strikeouts per nine innings and that BABIP is very low, even for a pitch-to-contact guy. At the same time, it has been proven by others before him that you don’t necessarily have to strike out the world to be successful in this league.
One thing Lugo has been particularly successful with so far has been keeping the ball in the park, as the solo home run he allowed to Nationals shortstop Danny Espinosa in his last start was the first and only long ball he’s given up to this point in his career. Another favorable trend for the young hurler, or just dumb luck? He’s not walking people either—just 2.38 per nine innings—so there hasn’t been much traffic on the bases for him to deal with.
So far, you can’t argue with the results as Lugo has been nothing short of a godsend for this team, posting a 2.38 ERA and 3.34 FIP in his first 13 career appearances. BP’s signature metric gives him less credit for the work he’s done (4.69 DRA), but the end performance result has been stunning.
Somehow, the New York Mets are right in the thick of things as they look poised for another potential postseason berth, and a big part of that reason is due to the heroics of the previously unheralded Seth Lugo. If he can continue to attack the zone, keep his velocity up, and mix in a few more of those excellent curves of his–while also benefitting from some good luck–he’s got every chance in the world to continue this successful run of his. And if he does that, the Mets may not be headed toward the abyss after all, but instead somewhere much brighter.
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