A few days ago, a story was published here with my grades for the key players on the 2020 Mets. In that piece, Seth Lugo received a D+. There were two comments that specifically mentioned that grade. The first expressed shock – in an approving way, is my guess – that Lugo received one that low. The second comment indicated that my grade was too harsh, with the commenter thinking he deserved a “C” grade, saying he was still good as a reliever.
In 2019, Lugo allowed runs in 13 of his 61 appearances, or 21% of the time. In 2020, he allowed runs in three of his nine relief appearances, or 33% of the time. For a comparison, Justin Wilson allowed runs in nine of his 45 appearances (20%) in 2019 and in five of his 23 appearances (22%) in 2020 while Edwin Diaz allowed runs in 19 of his 66 games (29%) in his first year with the Mets and five of his 26 games (19%) in 2020. In this simple six-season sample, four of the seasons had runs allowed in the 19-22% range. Then we have Diaz with his 29% range in what everyone considered a dismal 2019 and Lugo with a 33% mark in his relief appearances in this shortened season.
That was looking at the good relievers. Let’s take a quick look at the other end of the spectrum. Jeurys Familia allowed runs in eight of his 25 appearances in 2020, which is a 32% rate. Lugo’s was a small sample – absolutely – but when your runs allowed percentage is hanging out with 2019 Diaz and 2020 Familia, that’s not the kind of company you wish to keep. Shoot, let’s do one more. In 2019, Tyler Bashlor allowed runs in eight of his 24 appearances, which as the math majors know is 33%. Wow, this is even more depressing than originally thought.
Regardless, Lugo earned that grade from me more on the results of his starting pitching than his work out of the bullpen. Seven starts and a 6.15 ERA is dreadful, especially from a guy who hasn’t been bashful about wanting to start. Lugo had to know that poor results as a starter would be highly detrimental to his chances of ever being a starter again. That he performed so poorly is pretty shocking, at least to me.
There was a concern that Lugo was tipping his pitches in the Phillies game. He seemed to correct whatever was going wrong in that department in his next outing versus the Rays, when he allowed just 1 ER in 6.1 IP. But he ended the year on the flattest note possible, as he didn’t make it out of the second inning against the last-place Nationals. Lugo ended up with 6 ER in 1.1 IP. And while the Phillies bashed him to death with homers, Lugo did not throw a gopher ball in his start against the Nats.
So, it’s back to the pen and hope he can find his way back to his 2019 performance, right? Well, maybe not.
The best thing working in Lugo’s behalf to remain in the rotation is that the Mets only have two starting pitchers. It’s an expensive proposition to sign three free agent starters and good luck finding someone to trade you a starter cheaply. And it’s not like any of the guys in the farm system appear poised to take a slot. The easiest thing to do would be to tell Lugo he’s got a chance to show he belongs in the rotation until Noah Syndergaard returns to action.
But there’s another thing that makes me think he deserves an additional shot at starting.
The big trend now is to pay attention to when a pitcher is going through a lineup for the third time. Conventional wisdom is that for mid-rotation and back-end starters, you can maximize their success by not letting a guy face him for the third time in a game. And with Lugo sitting with a 6.15 ERA, no one is looking at him as a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Yet Lugo wasn’t running into trouble the third time through the order. Instead, he was getting lit up in the first two innings. In a way, this was just a continuation of his dropoff in performance in the bullpen from earlier in 2020. In seven starts, Lugo allowed runs in the first two innings four times. He pitched past the second inning in five starts and from inning three to inning seven, Lugo allowed 3 ER in 12.1 IP for a 2.19 ERA.
The splits on Baseball-Reference break down how pitchers do by innings. In the first two innings of a game, MLB pitchers allowed 1,656 ER in 3,592 IP for a 4.15 ERA. From innings three thru seven for all pitchers – not just starters – the league ERA was 4.72 over 8,928 innings. Lugo was more than twice as good as the average MLB pitcher in these innings.
Forget about average, let’s take a look at Jacob deGrom. In the first two innings of games in 2020, deGrom allowed 6 ER in 24 IP for a 2.25 ERA. In innings 3-7, deGrom allowed 12 ER in 44 IP for a 2.45 ERA. When Lugo wasn’t getting taken behind the woodshed, he was putting up numbers that were slightly better than deGrom’s in the middle innings of games. This seems relevant to if he can be a starter.
Sure, this has a little bit of, “aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” feel to it. It’s a gigantic problem when he gives up 14 ER in 7 IP in the first two innings of games over four starts. No one should pretend otherwise. The question is if what he did in those four starts in the first two innings is a better indication of how he’s going to perform as a starter than the 12.1 innings in five games from inning three on.
No matter where we look, we have small samples. The one constant, whether in his work as a SP or RP, is that Lugo has a significant number of game where he gives up multiple runs in the first two innings, including eight times as a reliever in 2019. The question we have to ask is: If he pitches for a full season in one role, can he overcome those games and still be a worthwhile pitcher? In 2019, in those eight games, he allowed 23 R (19 ER) in 8.2 IP – which is even worse than this year’s 14 ER in 7 IP. The thing is that Lugo got to pitch in 61 games in 2019 and throw 80 innings. He got the chance to compensate for the awful outings. Lugo didn’t get that chance, either as a starter or reliever, in 2020.
And he didn’t really get the chance in 2017, either. In addition to pitching with the elbow injury for the first time, he missed the first 60 games of the season.
We’ve seen what Lugo can do in a full season as a reliever – the 2.70 ERA and 0.900 WHIP he posted in 2019. It’s really good and a big reason why people are hesitant to make him a starter for a full season, a role where he hasn’t had anywhere near that level of success. Of course, just about any pitcher will perform better in a full season as a reliever compared to a full season as a starter. The question is: At what level does Lugo have to pitch as a starter to make it worthwhile to remove a 2.70 ERA guy from the pen?
There are a number of factors that play into what that number is, including the strength of your starters and relievers. And we know the Mets desperately need starters. But let’s play around some and see if we can come up with what Lugo might do as a starter in a season with 30+ starts.
As mentioned earlier, Lugo gave up runs in the first two innings in 13 of his 61 games as a reliever in 2019, or 21% of the time. So, let’s make him worse as a starting pitcher. Let’s say he gives up run(s) in the first two innings 30% of the time. If he makes 32 starts, that would mean 9.6 games he would give up runs early. We’ll round that up to 10 games. Here are the four games he gave up runs early as a starter in 2020:
9/5 – 2 IP, 1 ER
9/17 – 1.2 IP, 6 ER
9/22 – 2 IP, 1 ER
9/27 – 1.1 IP, 6 ER
That’s two starts where he gave up a run and two starts where he got clobbered. So, let’s give him five starts where he gives up one run and five starts where he gives up six runs. For easier math, let’s assume he pitches at least two innings in all of these starts, getting pulled after two frames in the games he gets clobbered and that he goes five innings in the other games. That would leave us with 20 IP and 35 ER for a 15.75 ERA in the first two innings of these contests.
Now, again to make things easy, let’s assume he pitches six innings in each of his remaining 22 starts. That would give him 167 IP for the season. And we know he didn’t allow a run in the first two innings of those remaining 22 starts. So, we have 64 IP and 35 ER for a 4.92 ERA in the first two innings of games. Now the question remains what he would do over the final 103 innings he pitched.
If he pitched as well as he did in 2020, when he had a 2.19 ERA after the second inning, he would give up 25 ER. That’s 60 ER and over 167 IP, that’s a 3.23 ERA. It seems a no-brainer to prefer a 3.23 ERA over 167 IP compared to his 2.70 ERA in 80 IP as a reliever.
Let’s give him a 3.00 ERA after the second inning. That would be 69 ER for his season and over 167 IP, that’s a 3.72 ERA. Maybe that’s not as clear-cut as the first option but it still seems like you would prefer him as a starter. In 2019, only 61 pitchers in MLB threw 160 innings and only 24 had an ERA better than the mythical 3.72 that Lugo gets in this example. So, check that, this would be a slam dunk, too.
The splits at B-R show Lugo with a career ERA of 3.68 in innings three thru six. If he did this in our example, he would finish the year with 77 ER in 167 IP for a 4.15 ERA. Only 37 starters in MLB in 2019 put up that many innings and had a better ERA. Guys who were close to that innings/ERA combo in 2019 include Max Fried (160.1 IP, 4.15 ERA), Joey Lucchesi (163.2 IP, 4.18 ERA) and Adam Wainwright (171.2 IP, 4.19 ERA).
Ultimately, none of us have any idea how Lugo would fare in a season with 32 starts. Someone could make different assumptions and come up with completely different, more pessimistic numbers than what was presented above. The bottom line for me is that what he did in seven starts in 2020 doesn’t change the narrative to any significant degree. He struggled mightily in the first couple of innings in two starts and gave up a run in two others and had three games without a run. You could say he had five starts where he gave up 2 ER in 10 IP in the first two frames or you could say he had four starts where he surrendered 14 ER in 7 IP.
Do two incredibly poor starts mean he’s incapable of being a starter? If you went into the 2020 season thinking he was a failed starter, you might view that as confirmation. But it’s never good to look at an issue with your mind made up and then only look for confirmation of your belief. And that goes both ways. You can’t say Lugo had a 2.31 ERA in the majority (five of seven) of his starts in 2020, which means he should be guaranteed a spot in the rotation in 2021.
Lifetime, Lugo is 15-10 with a 4.35 ERA in 38 games and 194.2 IP as a starter. Another small sample filled with things that make it tough to take at face value. There were the great results in 2016 when he outpitched his peripherals. There was the delayed start and pitching with the injured elbow in 2017. There were five and seven starts in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
It made sense to me for Lugo to be a reliever in 2019 because the Mets had five starters that were essentially league average or better. It didn’t make sense to me once Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman were out in 2020 for Lugo to be kept in the pen. With the Mets having only two starters right now for 2021, it makes sense to me to utilize Lugo as a starter.
Then we’ll just have to hope he doesn’t go out and make 32 starts and put up a 4.88 ERA – his career mark as a starter since 2017. That’s on the table as a potential outcome. It’s good to go into things with your eyes wide open.