Tampa Bay Rays Trade for Relief Pitcher Josh Lueke
Andrew Friedman likes to strike at the most unexpected times. In the late Sunday hours after a long weekend, Mr. Friedman made a strength-for-strength trade moving catcher John Jaso to the Seattle Mariners for Josh Lueke and a player to be named later. Jaso has the potential to be a league average batter if not a bit more at a position where 85% of league average is generally good enough. This is good news for a Seattle fanbase that has grown frustrated watching an impotent offense at the expense of generally good defense. This flies right in the face of Jack Z's normal logic as Jaso might be able to stick it, but he can't catch a lick. Blocking balls, calling a game, throwing out runners, he's just not good at any aspect.
The Rays already feature Robinson Chirinos, Jose Lobaton, Nevin Ashley, and Stephen Vogt on their 40-man with Jose Molina expected to join the party shortly. Chirinos and Vogt have their own defensive questions, but the floor is pretty low here and their bats could profile similarly to John Jaso. Lobaton and Ashley are the defensive-minded guys that will probably never hit league average. I'm of the opinion that if you really bring it at catcher with the glove then I'm willing to give a pretty long leash for what goes on inside the box. I also feel this way about SS, but that's a tale for another time. Long story short, I'd be fine with a Molina/Lobaton timeshare with very low offensive expectations as long as they become a real weapon on defense.
Now, on to the meat and potatoes of this trade. The Rays just got themselves a 6'5" 220 pound righty that has less than a year of service time. He's got the same build as Wade Davis, though perhaps a bit more stout. We're not here to talk about what he looks like in a uniform, however, as I put together some stuff using Pitch F/x from his 2011 season. This is roughly 550 pitches so we're starting with a pretty small sample which gets even smaller as we drill down, but I feel it's important to look at this stuff to get an idea of what he throws and to see if there are things we can already like or dislike right off the bat. Here's a look at the movement on his pitches:
The blue circles show the movement that Lueke gets on his pitches from the catcher perspective while the red squares show league average for that pitch type. You can see that his four-seam fastball (FF) is a bit flatter than league average with around four less inches of lateral movement and about two less inches of "rise." The Curveball (CU) trades lateral movement for vertical compared to league average. It's harder for lefties and righties to hit a pitch that is moving perpendicular to their swing plane making this type of curveball have much better platoon splits. His Splitter (FS) is the real breadwinner here, though. It's dropping almost half a foot more than leage average while showing similar horizontal movement. I'll touch on this more later, but he's also showing around 11 MPH separation between his fastball and the splitter. This pitch is essentially a change up with even more bite down at the expense of unlimited fade. I'm really interested to see this as it looks to be a true put away pitch.
It's a fool's errand to look at this and think you know a guy, but it looks like his fastball isn't all that great, perhaps a 50 grade when accounting for both movement and velocity, but the curveball could be a 60, and the splitter looks like it might be a 70. Most relievers don't have three solid pitches so they end up showing wide platoon splits which is the reason they're not starters in the vast majority of cases. Lueke looks like he has three pitches that complement each other well so let's see how he fared against lefties, righties, and everybody:
It bears mentioning again that we're only talking about roughly 30 innings so don't think that I'm forecasting or saying this is true talent level. As a relief pitcher Lueke will probably never have enough innings to make confident claims about his ability to get on lefties and righties, but that shouldn't stop us from looking at how he performed in 2011. It looks like Lueke was an absolute monster against righties while not having as much success against lefties. He reminds me a bit of Brandon Gomes, in that, he can get the weak lefties and maybe some of the average or better hitters as well, but you're going to want to go to the LOOGY when the good left-handed hitters come up. That is not an indictment as the guys that excel against both handed hitters make eight figures if they've done their time. We've seen the results, but let's take a look to see how we got here:
Here we're looking at some various things based on whether the batter was lefty or righty then we look at all batters. You'll notice that Lueke gives lefties a healthy dose of his splitter while righties see the curveball and fastball a bit more. I love to see that he isn't afraid to go to the right pitch against the right type of batter, but also doesn't get predictable as he'll throw all three. Again we see the nice separation between his pitch velocities. Don't worry too much about the F/x and F/z movements as they're shown better in the chart above.
In the next section we see % of each pitch being a Ball, Called Strike, Foul, In Play, or a Swinging Strike. I like to show these but prefer the next part for actual analysis. There we have percent that the batter took or swung at a pitch then Balls per Take (B/T), Strikes per Swing (S/S), and In Play per Swing (IP/S). These give us a nice look at whether he is able to fool batters when they take and if he can make them look foolish when they swing. Lefties spit on his curve which he doesn't throw much and when they do it's a ball 71% of the time. When they do swing they almost never put it in play and miss very often. This could point to the unpredictability since he doesn't throw it often, though the wOBAcon is a touch high. The fastball gets taken almost as often, but it's more likely to be a called strike. When they do swing it's put in play at a high rate while being whiffed on around league average. Again, we see the wOBAcon being a little higher than you would like. The splitter to lefties is where he really shines. Four out of five times it's a ball when a batter takes, BUT, when they do swing you're looking at a 35% whiff rate with the same likelihood of a ball being in play. The really awesome thing here is that he gets incredibly weak contact as his wOBAcon is below .100 which is just incredible.
Against righties we see pretty much the same story with the curve often being taken for a ball, a high whiff rate, but a ton of balls getting put in play with a better wOBAcon than against lefties. Righties swing at his fastball often as they probably don't want to get behind in the count. He's upped his swing strike here at the detriment of balls in play with similar damage to lefties. He rarelythrows the splitter, but he didn't give up a hit to righties while seeing 54% of swings turn into whiffs and less than a third of all swings ending up in play. Having swing and miss stuff is one of the best features of a reliever and Lueke seems to possess the aptitude to leave batters walking back to the dugout.
I through out a Gomes comparison earlier so let's take a quick look at his numbers through this same lens. First off here's the pitch movement:
The green triangles are the movement on Gomes pitches. You can see he's much closer to league average on his fastball and splitter. You can see how much more "drop" Lueke has on his split while the straightness of the fastball continues to stand out. Here's how batters fared against Gomes in 2011:
This is where the comparisons make the most sense as you can see that Gomes is even more nasty against same-handers while being slightly worse against lefties. This could speak to the slider generally having more of a platoon split than the curveball, especially Lueke's that seems to have more vertical movement than horizontal. Lastly, we can look at the component numbers:
Gomes pitches to both very similarly while using the splitter even less to righties and really throwing a ton of sliders to them. Those whiff rates are a thing of beauty, though you can see that batters tend to get rewarded with a ball when they take on all pitches.
Lastly, I wanted to take a look at trajectories here:
Though they have similar repertoires and splits, Lueke distinguishes himself by getting even more ground balls than Gomes who you could probably classify as a flyball pitcher. The Rays didn't really have a guy that could come in and get ground balls in the middle innings last year so let's hope that Lueke continues to show splits like this.
Many will probably get hung up on "character flaws" due to one bad night that ended up with Lueke doing a stint in the pokey. I don't care for it much because the Rays have a very good track record of keeping players that seem to have legitimate issues and discarding those that are beyond repair. We can see this in the track record with Elijiah Dukes, Delmon Young, Scott Kazmir, Josh Hamilton, Willy Aybar, and others. Aybar was a reclamation project who actually behaved himself quite well here, but recidivized once he was out of pocket. Andrew Bellatti is another guy that had one bad night and after paying the consequences is showing real prospect pulse on the farm. Luckily, Lueke is coming to a team that can keep it loose, but can also rein it in when need be with real leadership on the pitching staff. Lueke is going to pay for his crimes the rest of his life by having to atone to a bunch of people that he's never met on the road 81 games a year. Let's welcome the guy to St. Pete properly by giving him a chance to prove that it was one unfortunate incident and not a trend. I'll get off my soapbox now, but it's going to be easy copy for hack writers that prefer narrative over talking about the game.
At the end of the day, Josh Lueke may look a lot like Wade Davis, but he's probably going to be used a lot more like Brandon Gomes. Andrew Friedman may already be close to home as far as stocking the bullpen this year with Farnsworth at the back end, hopefully Peralta as a bridge, Gomes as a righty specialist that can get a K, Lueke as a guy that can get a groundball and bring death to righties, Jake McGee as a LOOGY, Alex Torres as another lefty, and one more spot for the cattle call that's sure to come in spring training. After last year's catch as catch can this is a welcome sight as Friedman can now turn his sights on nailing down one to two bats for the lineup.