If there has been one positive aspect of the Tampa Bay Rays’ injuries to their starting rotation, it is that we have gotten to see three of the talented relief prospects we have been hearing about the past few months. Brad Boxberger looked very good, showing a mid-90’s fastball to go along with a devastating changeup. After going up and down endlessly last season, Jeff Beliveau made two appearances and retired all six batters he faced. Then there was C.J. Riefenhauser, who walked in the go-ahead run on Sunday but impressed with his slider and solid fastball before that. Riefenhauser could use some more work at Triple-A, but especially Boxberger and Beliveau looked like they are deserving of a more extended big league opportunity. With them coming up and showing so much promise, though, it made the weak link still in the Rays’ bullpen even more obvious: Josh Lueke.
There are some things to like about Josh Lueke. His stuff is very good as he shows a mid-90’s fastball and two secondary pitches–a curveball and a splitter–that can both miss bats. In 184.2 innings pitched at Triple-A, he has a 2.97 ERA, striking out 205 while walking just 49. In addition, despite how badly he has seemingly struggled so far in 2014, his numbers really are fine so far–he has a 3.48 ERA and an 8-2 strikeout to walk ratio in 10.1 innings pitched. So why call for Lueke’s head? The first reason is that Lueke has managed to allow 2 home runs, second among all Rays pitchers to only David Price. Secondly–and far more important–is that the Rays do not trust him at all. Average leverage index (aLI) is a statistic that measures the pressure a pitcher faces in his appearances, with 1.00 being average. So far this season, Lueke’s aLI is at just .155, which means that it is 84.5% below the league average. Lueke is the only pitcher in baseball who has tossed 10 innings with an aLI under .190. That was never more on display on Sunday, when the Rays used Riefenhauser ahead of Lueke in the 12th inning. When you are trusting a pitcher you called up the day before over a pitcher that has been on your team the entire season, there is something wrong.
The Rays realized that Lueke has struggled the past few years, so they decided to implement some changes entering this year. After throwing just 5 sinkers in his first 57.1 big league innings according to Brooks Baseball, Lueke has already thrown 21 this season, accounting for 13.38% of his pitches. The Rays also adjusted the way Lueke has used his secondary pitches. In the past, Lueke threw 24% curveballs and 15% splitters to right-handed batters and 9% and 30% respectively against lefties. This season, Lueke’s usage to left-handed batters is almost exactly the same–30% splitters and 7% curves–but he has gone to 30% curveballs and just 8% splitters versus righties. This seems to be a vintage adjustment by Jim Hickey and the Rays pitching staff to try to turn Lueke’s stuff into better results. But have those changes worked?
Lueke has been able to improve his groundball rate moderately this season from where it was before, increasing it from 35.8% in his previous big league time to 42.7% this season. His strikeout rate has gone down from 21.4% to 17.8%, but that has been accompanied by a decrease in walk rate from 10.7% to 4.4%. We can say that Lueke’s homer rate counteracts some of the progress we are seeing–it is never good to see a pitcher throwing a sinker and still allowing home runs–but there certainly appears to be signs for optimism. The other side of the coin: these changes have taken away what made Lueke an interesting pitcher to begin with. Lueke’s average fastball velocity has gone from 95.75 MPH to just 93.02 MPH, and while he hopefully will increase that as the season goes on, that makes his arsenal much less formidable. In addition, Lueke’s splitter has always been better than his curveball–for his career, he has generated swings-and-misses at nearly double the rate while also going for strikes more often. Maybe Lueke’s hard curveball goes better with his new sinker, but throwing a worse pitch more often does not bode well for his results moving forward. If the Rays have helped Lueke at all, their fix looks to be only temporary.
Josh Lueke is not a lost cause yet, but it is impossible to be enthusiastic about how he will do for the Rays this season. The reasoning is pretty simple–his stuff has looked worse and the Rays don’t trust him. At what point will they finally decide to move on? Lueke’s time is not up yet, and he should get at least another few weeks to prove that he can be an effective major league reliever. However, with several options like Boxberger and Beliveau in Triple-A waiting for a chance, it is only a matter of time until Lueke is designated for assignment unless a major turnaround from him is about to begin.