Now, if you want to point out that we’re only in the second season of Statcast™ and that measurements go back only until the beginning of 2015, that’s more than fair. But not only was Lugo’s curveball considerably higher than the Major League curve average of 2,498 rpm, it’s a continuation of the “Lugo has great spin” story — one that put him on our radar from almost the instant he made his Major League debut on July 1.
When Lugo first got the call to New York, it’s more than fair to say he wasn’t exactly high on the must-see list of most prospect followers. He was a 34th-round pick in 2011 out of tiny Centenary College in Louisiana — a school known far more for NBA legend Robert Parish than any particular baseball pedigree, and then Lugo missed all of ’12 after injuring his back and requiring the terrifying-sounding “lumbar spinal fusion surgery.” Even this year, Lugo was carrying a bloated 6.50 ERA in the hitter’s paradise of Las Vegas, allowing 103 hits in 73 1/3 Triple-A innings.
So when Lugo made his debut in the eighth inning of a rain-delayed July 1 game that the Mets would go on to win 10-2, few really took notice. Few, that is, until he struck out Anthony Rizzo on a 3,485 rpm curveball so wicked that it actually hit the NL MVP Award candidate in the back foot after he swung through it. It was the 16th Major League pitch of Lugo’s career, and it immediately made waves as the second-highest individual spin curve of the Statcast™ era, behind only one from Angels ace Garrett Richards.
Since then, Lugo has continued setting curveball spin marks. Here’s the list of highest average spin among all pitchers who have thrown at least 50 curves in the 2015-16 Statcast™ era.
Highest average curveball spin, 2015-16, minimum 50 pitches (326 qualified pitchers)
Of those 326 qualifiers, only three have managed even 3,000 rpm, and as you can see, Lugo is the leader not by a little, but by a lot. You want high spin on curveball because it’s delivered with topspin, which means the ball is spinning towards the dirt, and the high spin helps give it more downward movement. It goes without saying that a curveball that dives is generally more effective than one that hangs up.
How about highest individual curves? You can see the full leaderboard here, because Lugo has dominated it so fully that to actually reproduce the entire list in this article would be far lengthier than anyone wants to read. Not only does he have the highest-spin curve, he’s got seven of the top 10, and 18 of the top 25, and 32 of the top 50, and… you get the point. That’s despite the fact that Lugo has thrown only 34 2/3 Major League innings so far. It may sound crazy to make this comparison, but he’s dominating the spin list in the same way Aroldis Chapman dominates the pitch velocity list or Giancarlo Stanton rules the exit velocity leaderboard.
So does having high spin matter? Well, yes, because high spin leads to high movement. So far, we’ve tracked 266 pitchers this season with at least 50 curveballs thrown, and Lugo’s average of 10.8 inches of vertical movement is second only to Houston’s Mike Fiers. Or, put another way, just over two percent of all curveballs (1,038 of 49,737) are delivered at 3,000 rpm or higher. Let’s compare the outcomes…
2016 Major League hitters vs. curveballs under 3,000 rpm
Percent of all curves thrown: 97.9
Average against: .214
Slugging against: .352
2016 Major League hitters vs. curveballs over 3,000 rpm
Percent of all curves thrown: 2.1
Average against: .154
Slugging against: .217
You can see the difference. As for Lugo specifically, it’s been unsurprisingly an effective pitch. He’s had 23 at-bats end with a curve this year, and he’s collected nine strikeouts on it while allowing two singles and two doubles, which is a .174 average against. One might argue that, much like Rich Hill, Lugo may be better served throwing what seems like an elite pitch far more than he currently is.
Then again, things seem to be going pretty well for Lugo right now, as he’s become an important part of keeping the Mets in the NL Wild Card race, thanks in part to that record-setting curve. Don’t say you didn’t see him coming, though. It’s been nearly two months since that first high-spin curve of Rizzo made us all take notice. High spin, it seems, makes itself known right away.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
Source: Mets News / Lugo spins a Statcast curveball record