Seth Lugo Needs To Throw More Curveballs

Using Statcast data, Mike Petriello of determined pitchers have begun throwing not just more curveballs, but also curveballs with a higher spin rate. Moreover, pitchers are more inclined to use a curveball in any point in the count. One of the major reasons for pitchers using more curveballs is the results it generates. According to Statcast, batters do not have a lot of success against the curveball:

Curves above 2,600 rpm in 2016
Average: .196
Exit velo: 86.8 mph
Whiffs per swing: 32.2 percent

Curves below 2,600 rpm in 2016
Average: .225
Exit velo: 87.7 mph
Whiffs per swing: 30.2 percent

As noted by Petriello, teams are well aware of the trend, and they have been asking their pitchers to throw more curveballs. Notable examples have included Clayton Kershaw, Collin McHugh, and Rich Hill. Over the past few seasons, pitchers who have gone to an increase usage of their curveball have seen better results.

This data is promising for Seth Lugo. Lugo has the highest curveball spin rate ever recorded. In fact, Lugo actually has 43 of the top 50 spin rates ever recorded in the Statcast Era.

When Lugo has gone to his curveball, he has been extremely successful. According to Brooks Baseball, Lugo’s curveball was his toughest pitch to hit. When he threw it, batters whiffed 34% of the time – most notably was the strikeout he recorded on Anthony Rizzo. When batters were actually able to make contact with the curveball, it was a groundball 52% of the time. As a result, batters slugging percentage off of the pitch was a woeful .294.

However, despite the curveball being such a dominant pitch for Lugo, he only threw the pitch 16% of the time. That made it his second least used pitch. Indeed, Lugo mainly threw fastballs, sinkers, and sliders in 2016. Overall, this was effective as Lugo was 5-2 with a 2.67 ERA and a 1.094 WHIP. Still, there were warning signs Lugo is due for regression as evidenced by his 4.33 FIP. Overall, Lugo’s numbers were mostly fueled by his ability to limit the damage with runners on base and in scoring position. In fact, batters only hit .149 against him with runners in scoring position and .179 with runners on base.

Depending on your point of view, Lugo’s numbers last year were the result of an innate skill, pure luck, or somewhere in the middle. Quite possibly, it was Lugo’s use of the curveball in high leverage situations that helped him out of those jams. As noted above, batters have a high whiff rate and hit many groundballs against the curveball – that goes double for Lugo. Therein lies the key to his success in 2017 and beyond.

With Bartolo Colon leaving in free agency, there may very well be an opportunity for Lugo to pitch in the rotation at some point next season. If Lugo uses his curveball much more frequently, it is possible he could replicate the numbers he produced last season.  Perhaps, he could put together an even better season next year.

Hopefully, he will.  As it stands now, other than Noah Syndergaard, there are no guarantees as to who will be ready to start the year in the rotation.  Early word on Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz are positive.  There has been little to no news on Zack Wheeler since he was shut down with elbow discomfort.  With that in mind, Lugo could find himself in a competition with Robert Gsellman for the last spot in the rotation.  While Gsellman is coming off a good rookie season himself, he doesn’t have one pitch that can match Lugo’s curveball.  As it turns out, not many do.

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