Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Fleck of Gold in the Padres Season

If one can imagine hard enough, one can almost understand what it must have felt like to pan gold during the gold  rush days. Endlessly dipping that little tray into the sand at the bottom of a stream and then sifting it. They had to be endlessly optimistic sifting through all that debris with hope that something would...well...pan out. Sifting through the box scores is a little like that. Day after day, this writer dips his little tray into the sand in hopes that something shiny will remain once the silt slips through the screen. This writer found a nugget today and his name is Cory Luebke.

Cory Luebke pitches for the San Diego Padres. Way back in 2007, Luebke was a first round draft pick (he was selected sixty-third in that round) for the Padres and he's slowly worked his way up the Padres' system. Despite his high draft pick, those who evaluate talent haven't been too high on him. Luebke hasn't appeared in Keith Law's Top 100 picks or in his Top Ten Prospects for each organization. Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the twelfth best prospect in the Padres system. Of BP's comments on Luebke, they said this: "A tall left-hander, Luebke combines plus command with average stuff and could fit in the back of the rotation down the road."   **Keith Law's work and Baseball Prospectus are both pay services.

It appears that road arrived at our doorstep. This writer knows what you are thinking! He pitches half his games in that pitcher's paradise in San Diego. True. But as we shall see, there's much more to this story than such simple answers.

Before we get into how Luebke is doing in the major leagues, let's talk first about his minor league experiences. For a guy with average stuff, Luebke has won at every level and the higher he went, the more successful he was. In 74 minor league starts (he also relieved ten times along the way), Luebke went 32-17 which translates to a .653 winning percentage. His WHIP was 1.145 in A ball, 1.085 in Double A and 1.025 in Triple A. His ERA in Double A was 2.95 and was 2.97 in Triple A. During his time in those two levels, Luebke went 13-3.

And the command part is certainly correct. For his entire minor league career, Luebke walked 2.1 batters per nine innings while striking out 7.5 in those same nine innings. During that time, his homers per nine was 0.7. His hits per nine covering all levels was 8.4, but it was 6.6 in Triple A. That's all pretty good stats for a guy who projects to having average stuff.

Now let's flash forward to his 2011 season in the majors. After getting a cup of coffee last year, Luebke won a job with the Padres coming into the 2011 season. But he was put in the bullpen. Two of his first four outings were rough and after four appearances, his ERA was a balloon-like 11.37. Luebke then went twelve straight appearances without giving up a run covering sixteen innings and he brought his ERA down to 3.22. Two of his next four appearances were negative.

Luebke had earned some of Buddy Black's trust though and he graduated to the back end of the bullpen and he racked off another nine straight scoreless appearances. Three of those resulted in holds. His ERA was by then down to 3.03. Luebke then pitched in long-relief on June 20 and gave up two runs in three plus innings.

Injuries and ineffective starts by the Padres' season-opening rotation started taking their toll and Luebke was forced into the rotation as the Padres really didn't have any other options. That turned out to be a great idea for the Padres.

In Luebke's first two starts against the Braves and the Mariners, he pitched eleven innings and gave up three hits and no runs. He got a no-decision and a win. He then pitched a quality start (six innings, two runs) against the Giants and lost. He pitched again against the Giants on July 16 and pitched seven innings and gave up two runs and won. The Luebke lost three straight starts but didn't pitch all that badly against the Phillies, the Diamondbacks (they were not then) and the Dodgers. He gave up eleven runs in twenty and two-thirds innings and his ERA was back up to 3.21.

Luebke has pitched very well since then. In his last four starts, he's won twice and had two no-decisions. The Padres won all four of those games. All told, Luebke has made eleven starts. The Padres have won seven of those starts though Luebke has gone 4-4 in those games. He has pitched 66 and a third innings in those starts and has give up 20 runs in those innings. That comes out to a 2.71 ERA. In those 66.1 innings, he's given up only 48 hits and 14 walks and two hit batters for a WHIP right around one. He's also struck out 69 batters in those starts. Again, not bad for a guy with average stuff. His strikeout to walk ratio as a starter is an impressive 4.92.

And what of his average stuff? Well, he is averaging between 91 and 92 MPH on his two types of fastballs. Between some pretty good velocity and his command and movement, Fangraphs has rated his fastball thus far  for the season at 23.5 runs above average. His slider is also above average. His curve and change up aren't plus pitches, but he only throws them some 6.7 percent of the time (combined). Luebke's been terrific at inducing batters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone at a very high 35 percent. Some eleven percent of his pitches result in swing and misses. Compare that to someone like Wade Davis, who has a 5.5 percent swing and miss rate. His swing and miss rate is slightly higher than Jeremy Hellickson's!

Oh! This writer promised you some information that his pitching isn't so great because of his home ballpark. If you check his home/road splits, Cory Luebke has given up an OPS against of .634 at home. That's great! But his OPS against on the road is a miserly .484!

What prompted this little nugget of a post was Sunday's outing for Luebke. It became one of his signature games. He pitched six innings, gave up only three hits against no walks and struck out eight. His only run allowed was on a solo homer by Mike Stanton. The bullpen blew the lead for him, but the Padres came back to win the game in walk off fashion. Sure, it was against the weak-hitting Marlins, but even so. Starts like that are pure gold. Sometimes, pitchers like Cory Luebke force a team's hand and despite not lighting up a prospect evaluation, simply know how to pitch competitively. Luebke has done that all through his professional career and is now doing it in the majors.


Witt said...

Luebke has been a great addition to the staff. I was hoping he would get into the rotation earlier. He has been great and will be part of the rotation for many years to come

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Thanks for the comment, Witt. That would be a great ending to the story.