In a matter of weeks, Seth Lugo has risen from depth starting pitcher to reliever to critical late-inning option in Mickey Callaway’s Mets bullpen, an ascent marked by a particular adjustment to his repertoire: more curveballs than ever.
The curve has been a signature pitch for Lugo since he debuted in 2016 — and its movement made him a darling among disciples of MLB’s Statcast technology — but he couldn’t always tell where that movement would bring it.
This season, the control is sharpened. With control has come confidence. Lugo is throwing curveballs at a career-high rate of more than one out of every four pitches, double what he was doing at the end of last season.
“In spring training, I mechanically got to the spot where I wanted to be,” Lugo said. “It comes out of my hand as a fastball and I’m actually controlling it a lot better.
“The reason I didn’t throw it too much in the past was because I didn’t really know where it was going. Now I have a better feel for where it’s going, so I throw it a lot more.”
It’s been working, too. Batters are hitting .231 against it, down from .280 last year, according to Brooks Baseball, which also tracks pitch usage numbers. Lugo’s curve is drawing way more ground balls and way fewer line drives, and little of the contact has been hard. He’s been confident enough to throw it as the first pitch to 13 of the 44 batters he’s faced.
That’s helped Lugo to a solid start (2.45 ERA) as a reliever. Although walks have been an issue (six in 11 innings), his conversion to relief has been a net gain for the Mets. Those trends come with the small-sample-size caveats typical of April, but early returns after what Lugo said was an offseason of work on the curve are positive.
One area that’s still a weakness: purposely spotting it outside the strike zone. Hence, far fewer whiffs than last year.
“Lately I’ve been having trouble getting the swing and miss with it out of the zone,” Lugo said. “I’m locating it pretty good in the zone, and even the ones that are missing over the middle, they’re still not getting much of or hitting off the end of the bat or getting on top of it still.”
Lugo’s curve also has featured the third-highest spin rate in the majors at 3,105 revolutions per minute. If that means nothing to you, just know that it’s way above average and that more spin means more movement, which is good.
Lugo’s increased curveball use comes at a time when pitchers across baseball are throwing more breaking pitches. The Astros’ Lance McCullers Jr. uses his curve more than half of the time, because it’s that good a pitch for him. It might seem like common sense — throw your best pitch most often — but a century and a half of baseball norms dictate establishing your fastball and working off that.
Lugo would seem to be a candidate for further increased curveball use, and he expressed an interest in pursuing that. But don’t expect him to go full McCullers.
Pitching coach Dave Eiland likes Lugo to use the curve off his fastball. Both pitches start on the same plane, Eiland said, so a fastball up in (or above) the strike zone preceded or followed by a curve that drops low can be confusing to batters. And it matters, too, which pitches Lugo has a feel for as he warms up.
“Curveball is a good pitch for him and all that,” Eiland said. “But when he’s commanding his fastball and moving it around the zone, that’s when he has his best outings.”