This past offseason, the Rays traded catcher John Jaso to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for reliever Josh Lueke. It wasn’t exactly a high-profile eal, but the Rays were trading from a position of weakness, catcher, and were really banking on the fact that Lueke could be an effective middle reliever for them in 2012 despite struggling for the Mariners in 2011, posting a 6.06 ERA in 24 appearances although with a 3.27 FIP. So far, Lueke has fallen well short of the Rays’ hopes. Lueke has allowed 7 runs in 3.1 big league innings for the Rays in 2012, an 18.90 ERA, and even at Triple-A he had a 4.91 ERA in 31 appearances and 51.1 IP. Jaso, meanwhile, has enjoyed a breakout season as a part-time catcher and designated hitter for the M’s, posting a .287/.395/.465 line with 12 doubles, 4 homers and 26 RBI in 58 games and 191 plate appearances. The Lueke-Jaso trade has looked like an utter disaster for the Rays so far.
But maybe it won’t go down that way. Lueke has had a tough year, no doubt, but he has been quite a bit better than his overall numbers. At Triple-A Durham, he does have a 4.91 ERA. But he has posted a 9.5 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9, good for a 2.87 FIP. And he has steadily improved throughout the season. Lueke was unqualifiedly horrific wherever he pitched in April, posting a 11.05 ERA and a 5.11 FIP. But he improved to a 3.65 ERA and a 2.47 FIP in May, kept his FIP at 3.89 even as his ERA spiked to 6.75 in June, and in July, he has been next-to-unhittable, posting a 0.63 ERA and a 0.83 FIP as he has struck out 17 while walking none in 14.1 innings. Lueke sputtered in the big leagues early in the season, and his confidence was shattered. But he has worked his way all the way back and has been great since, posting just a 3.89 ERA but a 2.50 FIP. Oh, and by the way, he struck out 2 in a perfect inning in his first big league appearance after April on May 18th.
Why has Lueke been so inconsistent even at Triple-A? Maybe even inconsistent isn’t the right word- why has he had stretches where he has completely and undeniably fallen apart both in 2011 and 2012? This is a pitcher with an electric mid-90’s fastball, a plus splitter, and a solid curveball. This isn’t a case where Lueke has great stuff but terrible control- this is a pitcher who has walked just 2.3 batters per innings in 180 minor league appearances. Or is it? Lueke can throw strikes, but his major problem was that he was too afraid to attack big league hitters. But more than that, Lueke has to find the right balance of throwing strikes and trying to make perfect pitches. Lueke allowed a 20% line drive percentage in 2011 in the major leagues and according to Minor League Central, has stayed about the same in 2012 at Triple-A, allowing a 19.5% line driver rate. The reason for that is that while Lueke has at times been unable to attack hitters, at other points he gets into trouble by throwing strikes all the time even when he has been ahead in the count. Lueke has needed to realize that there’s nothing wrong with purposely throwing pitches out of the zone to get hitters to chase or to set up another pitch. Finally he seems to have drilled that into his head, and the results have been great.
The stuff, the control, and the command have all been there a while for Lueke. And now that he has figured out how to best utilize his pitches, there’s nothing holding him back. Before the season ends, Lueke will get another chance in the big leagues. And this time, Lueke has the ability to be every bit the pitcher that the Rays saw when they acquired him.