Last year, Seth Lugo provided the shot in the arm the Mets needed to return to the playoffs. This year, Lugo needed a shot in the arm just to be able to pitch. Since returning to the majors on Jun 11, he’s taken his spot in the rotation and missed just two turns despite his elbow woes. Still, he hasn’t quite delivered the quality results that he did in 2016 and it’s an open question what the Mets should expect from him in 2018 and beyond.
While Lugo delivered a 2.67 ERA after his promotion in 2016, the estimators showed a completely different story. In that stretch, he posted a 4.33 FIP and a 4.71 xFIP, which indicated his results were not supported by his peripherals. If all you knew were his ERA, FIP and xFIP, you would expect Lugo’s 2017 ERA to be significantly higher than his ERA in 2016.
And that’s exactly what’s happened. Lugo sits today with a 4.64 ERA. As expected, he hasn’t been able to duplicate either his BABIP (.230) or LOB% (85.7) from a year ago. But while last season Lugo exceeded his peripherals, this year he is underperforming them. Right now, his FIP checks in at 4.00 and his xFIP is at 4.39 for the season.
So, what the heck is going on?
There are at least two addtional things that we have to take into account when looking at Lugo’s 2017. First is that his season was delayed when it was found he had a partial tear in his pitching elbow. Lugo opted against having TJ surgery and instead received a PRP injection into his elbow. This allowed him to get back onto the field this year, although it’s far from clear if he’s out of the woods as far as needing further elbow surgery down the road.
For what it’s worth, back in mid-July, Lugo told Abbey Mastracco of NJ Advanced Media that his elbow was a non-factor, saying:
“At this point, it’s been feeling good for over a month and I haven’t even thought about it,” he said. “I just make sure to do my routine postgame and in between starts. I don’t think about it much more than that.”
“It’s pretty normal,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s any different than usual.”
Of course, we have to take everything most athletes say in regards to their health with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, we have a culture that says if you talk about injuries instead of playing a tough guy that you’re letting your teammates down. Lugo’s quote does not mean that he’s home free. But he’s pitching every five days and not requiring any outward special treatment. In nine of his 14 starts, he’s topped 90 pitches and he’s thrown as many as 114 in an outing. He only threw 84 pitches in his last start but he was pinch-hit for in the bottom of the sixth when his spot in the order came up with the bases loaded.
When Lugo came back this season, the idea was that getting up multiple times in the non-regimented way of a reliever would be more stressful on his elbow than if he had a starter’s additional innings workload but on a predictable pattern. Will the Mets feel the same way after an offseason of rest? Many people, most notably Matt Cerrone of MetsBlog, felt that Lugo would be a terrific multi-inning reliever. Since the Sandy Alderson regime arrived, the Mets have bent over backwards to accommodate lefty relievers. What if instead they bent over backwards to accommodate a guy to pitch 2-3 innings at a time? Ah, dreams…..
The other thing we have to keep in mind while evaluating Lugo is the run environment. In 2016, NL pitchers allowed almost a quarter of a run fewer per game than they have here so far in 2017. So, in a season where runs are more plentiful and one where he’s pitching with a tear in his elbow, Lugo is performing better than he did a season ago by the run estimators.
Examining nothing but his ERA compared to other league starters, minimum 50 innings pitched, this year Lugo’s 4.71 starter’s ERA has him as a low-level SP4. But if instead we compare Lugo to other NL starters by FIP, we see his 3.90 starter’s FIP ranks tied with Rich Hill for 24th-best in the league, making him a low-end SP2.
If Lugo’s FIP last year could be used to point out he wasn’t anywhere close to as good as his ERA suggested, shouldn’t it be used this year to show that he’s better than his 2017 ERA?
Health permitting, Lugo should get four more starts this year to further aid in evaluating his season. Assuming he pitches in those similar to how he’s done so far in 2017, the Mets will have to determine how healthy he can be in 2018, if he’s good enough from a quality standpoint to be penciled in as a starter and if he’s better than the potential alternatives.
It’s just another in a long line of tough evaluation decisions the Mets have in front of them. Still, when you consider all that’s gone on here in 2017, Lugo’s season has been a nice development.
Much has been made about Lugo’s effectiveness the third time through the order this season, when opponents have a .363/.413/.488 line in 92 PA. Yet you don’t hear anywhere near as much about his struggles with the bottom of the order. Seventh place hitters have a .907 OPS against him this year while guys hitting eighth check in with an .845 OPS.
Baseball-Reference has a metric called sOPS+, which compares the individual’s split relative to the league’s split in the same category. Lugo’s sOPS+ mark the third time through the order has an sOPS+ mark of 129, which is not good. But his sOPS+ mark for eighth place hitters is 139 and for guys who hit seventh it’s 142 – meaning relatively he’s performed worse against those hitters than he has third time through the order.
The sample sizes for all of these are small, so you probably don’t want to read too much into any of them. Instead, this is just a factoid to counter those who think that all of Lugo’s issues will magically go away if he doesn’t have to face a batter more than twice in a game.