Were new Rays reliever Josh Leuke’s struggles in 2011 purely a fluke?


Hi. I’m Robbie Knopf and I’m a new writer here at Rays Colored Glasses. I’m bringing a different dimension to RCG: sabermetrics. My specialty is sabermetrics and Pitch F/X analysis, and I’ll use those as just another avenue to analyze the Rays and attempt to make sense of the complicated game of baseball. I hope you all enjoy my writing, and I’ll attempt to explain all the different stats as we go along.

The other day, the Rays made their first trade of the offseason, trading catcher John Jaso to the Seattle Mariners in exchanged for troubled right-handed reliever Josh Lueke. Both players were downright awful at least at first glance in 2011, with Jaso hitting just .224 with just a .298 OBP, and Leuke posted a 6.06 ERA. But Lueke has a lot more potential to be great than Jaso, and that was evident even from his 2011 stats.

He posted an 8.0 K/9 (strikeouts per 9 innings ratio), a 3.6 BB/9 (walks per 9 innings ratio), and a 0.6 HR/9 (home runs allowed per 9 innings ratio) in 25 major league relief appearances and 32.2 IP (innings pitched), which amounts to a much better 3.24 FIP. (FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching, a formula that uses strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed in order to find a “true ERA”, the ERA that a pitcher would put up with average defense and average luck. The MLB average was 4.03 in 2011, just a bit higher than the league ERA of 3.94.) After being sent back down to the minors at the end of April and returning in late July, his FIP improved to 2.90 in his 17 relief appearances as he posted a 3.43 ERA. And those FIP’s seem to be no fluke. Lueke throws a fastball in the mid-90’s along with a nice splitter and two breaking balls, a curveball and a slider. Lueke, who will be 27 on December 5th, has the potential to be a valuable late-inning reliever for the Rays. But there’s one obvious thing holding him back.

Lueke is not exactly a model citizen. In 2009, he was accused of rape and sodomy before pleading down to a lesser charge and going to jail for 40 days. No matter how well Lueke pitches, it could be just a matter of time until he gets in trouble again. But the Rays are hoping that this time, he rights himself and achieves his potential. If he can do that, the Rays will have traded a catcher who seemingly can’t do anything right for a player who could be a very good late-inning reliever.

But even if Lueke can stay out of trouble, he’s by no measure a sure thing. It’s nice that he posted a good FIP in 2011, especially in his last 17 appearances, but FIP can be misleading. His xFIP was 3.79 and he allowed a 20% line drive percentage compared to the league average of 18%. (xFIP attempts to neutralize luck even further for a pitcher, replacing home runs in the formula with expected home runs, the amount of flyballs the pitcher allowed divided by 10.) Neither of those are good signs. And also those pitches I mentioned earlier? Fangraphs graded every single one of them other than the splitter as below average pitches, with his fastball coming in at 2.6 runs below average, his slider 0.5 runs below average, and his curveball 0.7 runs below average while his splitter was an impressive 5.1 runs above average. But one-pitch pitchers (other than Mariano Rivera) don’t survive in the big leagues. Let’s take a look at how Lueke’s pitches moved in his big league stint in 2011, and see if those below-average run values are bound to change.

Unless you have read my previous posts at isportsweb.com, you’ve never seen anything like this. Let me explain what’s going on here. I call this a movement chart. The two rectangles in this chart are estimators of the strike zone. The 28 inches by 24 inches configuration approximates the strike zone with is 23.5 inches by 19.8 inches (it’s the closest way to achieve that type of ratio with whole numbers divisible by four).

The lines in the chart are the average movement on each of Lueke’s pitches according to Pitch F/X from BrooksBaseball.net. Pitch F/X isn’t perfect- it doesn’t have data on every pitch, and it doesn’t characterize every pitch correctly. The movement shown is the average net movement on each of these pitches per game rather than per pitch. Net movement is the movement from where the pitch releases the ball to where it lands in the catcher’s mitt. Pitches move differently for pitchers on different days and if a pitch isn’t moving well, the pitcher throws it less and if it is moving well, he throws it more, so switching the movement to per game rather than movement per pitch gives us a better measure of the average movement on the pitch over the course of the season. (The average movement per game and average velocity was the mean of the data for all the pitches other than for the splitter in the graph on the right, where the median was used because of outliers.) The lines are how the pitches would look if the pitcher (in this case Lueke) started them right down the middle. The endpoints of the lines are the net movement of the pitches and how the lines look is an approximation of how pitch looks in the air. For example, Lueke’s splitter in the graph on the right starts out going upwards around 2.5 inches and in about 2 inches to a right-handed batter before gravity takes it down around 7 inches (and still in another inch to a righty) before the catcher receives it. The net movement and not just the movement in the air matters because in this age of advanced scouting, hitters know how opposing hurlers’ pitches move, and what’s important for a pitcher is to generate enough net movement on his pitches that even when the hitter knows how the pitch will break, he’ll still miss it.

So what does this graph tell us? It makes it clear that the reason Lueke improved so much from his first eight games to his last seventeen after he returned to the majors was movement and how he used his pitches.  The key tells us how hard and how often Lueke threw his pitches over these different time frames. Just by looking at the lines, it’s clear that his splitter and curveball (Pitch F/X didn’t register any of Lueke’s pitches as sliders) went from decent pitches to dynamic ones, and looking at the key, he used those two pitches more and using his fastball less led to him throwing the pitch almost 2 MPH harder. Lueke dominated in the minor leagues, posting a 2.15 ERA and an even better 1.94 FIP over his last 84 minor league relief appearances. And he was able to do most of that by primarily using his nice fastball and when he did mix in his other pitches, most of the minor league hitters couldn’t hit them. But once arriving in the major leagues, big league hitters were able to destroy Lueke’s fastball because he couldn’t establish his offspeed pitches, which didn’t move enough to be effective.

After being recalled to the big leagues, Lueke was able to establish his offspeed pitches, making his fastball exponentially more effective, and the extra velocity certainly helped as well. After his call-up back to the big leagues, Lueke had an arsenal of his mid-90’s fastball which moved up and in to a lefty batter, a spitter in the low-80’s that initially moved like his fastball before breaking the opposite way, and a curveball that simply disappeared, free-falling seven inches from its highest point. That’s the type of arsenal that could make Lueke a very effective big league reliever. But can Lueke maintain that type of movement on his pitches? You could make the argument that if those eight appearances were Lueke’s pitches at their nadir, the last seventeen appearances were his pitches at their peak. And there’s always the sample size issue: the first eight appearances spanned just 6.1 innings, and the last seventeen spanned 26.1. The total of 32.2 IP isn’t a large sample size by any measure, but it’s the biggest we have from Pitch F/X and it comprises the ups and downs of Lueke’s season. Let’s look at Lueke’s seasonal movement chart.

The overall movement chart certainly isn’t as good as the final 17 games chart, but it’s certainly a step up from the movement chart from his first big league stint, and it’s good enough for him to be a good major league reliever. He can generate swings-and-misses while not walking too many batters and keeping the ball in the ballpark. Here’s the bottom line: Lueke has to keep himself together. No arrests, no lapses. He has the ability to be the kind of multiple-season elite late inning reliever the Rays have wished they had for years. If he can stay focused and get himself and his best stuff on the mound, he’ll be great. Will that happen? It’s all up to Lueke.

Welcome to St. Petersburg, Josh. It’s a place for a fresh start. You’d better take advantage.