Overcast skies and the echo of Yankee Stadium’s public address announcer painted the periphery of what was an unforgettable moment for Lucas Luetge.
The 34-year-old reliever stood on the top step of the Yankees’ dugout, waving to his family in the stands as his pinstriped jersey billowed in the wind.
It was Opening Day in the Bronx and after pitching his way to a roster spot in spring training, Luetge found himself back in the big leagues, set to pitch in a Major League game for the first time in six years.
Little did the southpaw know in that moment that he was destined for much more than just the completion of his baseball odyssey in pinstripes. Luetge would go on to spend an entire season with the Yankees, blossoming into a beloved member of the clubhouse and a fan favorite while anchoring the pitching staff as one of New York’s most important relievers.
Lucas Luetge’s tale of perseverance began on April 25, 2015.
The left-hander was kicking off his fourth year with the Mariners, looking to recapture the type of season he had when he was a rookie back in 2012, posting a 3.98 ERA over 63 appearances out of Seattle’s bullpen.
Luetge would pitch the final 2.1 innings of an 8-5 loss to the Minnesota Twins on that fateful day, a game that was started by future Yankee James Paxton. Outfielder Torii Hunter was the final batter that Luetge faced. He ended the top of the ninth inning by picking off another soon-to-be Yankee, Shane Robinson, as he attempted to steal second base.
The left-hander was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma the very next day and as much as he was recalled one month later, Luetge never left the bullpen, heading back to the minors shortly thereafter.
No biggie, right? Still only 28 years old at the time, a brief stint in Triple-A couldn’t hurt. Besides, Luetge had a career 4.35 ERA at that point. That time could be used to sharpen certain skills until an opportunity at the next level presented itself.
Unfortunately, the Brenham, Texas, native never pitched in a Mariners uniform again. In fact, 2,170 days would pass before Luetge’s next opportunity on a big-league mound. By then, Torii Hunter had already appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot.
The next five seasons featured too many uniforms to count. Racking up 204.1 innings pitched in Triple-A—from 2015 to 2019—Luetge made appearances in the Angels, Reds, Orioles and Diamondbacks systems. In 2016, Luetge was called up by Los Angeles, but didn’t see the field. He was designated for assignment four days later. The following year, Luetge underwent Tommy John surgery, spending all of 2018 on the sidelines.
It wasn’t until last year’s pandemic-shortened season that Luetge sniffed a return to the Majors. Recruited by the Yankees, Luetge elected to sign with the Athletics. Instead of making his long-awaited return, however, the lefty was relegated to the alternate site all season long, held back by a healthy bullpen in Oakland.
After falling short in the Luetge sweepstakes the previous winter, New York wouldn’t let anything stand between them and their white whale. On the very first day of free agency for minor leaguers leading into the 2021 season, Luetge’s phone rang.
“The Yankees backed it up again this year and contacted me again on the first day, showing me that they really were truly interested,” Luetge recalled this spring. “It's playing for the Yankees. I grew up watching them. I was a big Andy Pettitte fan. He went to my junior college. It's just kind of something I wanted to do and it felt right.”
So, Luetge began to prepare for his latest opportunity, reporting to camp as a non-roster invitee. And while many of his new teammates had never heard of him before, the Yankees viewed Luetge as a high-upside addition and a left-hander capable of a resurgence.
Boy, were they right.
Luetge’s spring training performance with the Yankees was nothing short of spectacular.
The product of Rice University and San Jacinto College struck out 10 of the first 14 batters he faced. He wound up with 18 punch outs over 10.1 innings pitched in Grapefruit League play, allowing only two earned runs.
All of a sudden, the lanky hurler was legitimately in contention for a spot in the big-league bullpen.
“He had our attention early in camp and obviously his performance has validated that and continues to keep him very much in the conversation,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said back in March.
Factor in injuries to veteran relievers Zack Britton and Justin Wilson, and Luetge found himself listed on New York’s 26-man roster as the Bombers broke camp. Luetge confessed that he had headaches and a sore jaw the day he learned he made the team. He just couldn’t stop smiling.
“Everything I've been hoping for the last five or six years finally came true,” Luetge said on Opening Day. “You just feel that sense of joy again.”
Luetge officially completed his crusade back to the big leagues on April 3, summoned to pitch the seventh inning in the second game of the regular season. Skipping through the bullpen door, the lefty broke down his proverbial barriers, taking it all in as jogged toward the mound.
“I try to tell the younger guys all the time, when we're at certain stadiums, get on the mound and just look around for a second,” Luetge told Inside the Pinstripes at Yankee Stadium this summer. “Appreciate where you're at and what you're doing. I know how quickly things can change.”
Reminding himself that his overdue opportunity can be gone as quickly as he got there, Luetge found himself in danger of a swift demotion. By the numbers, the lefty struggled mightily during his first two weeks in a Yankees uniform, allowing at least one earned run in each of his first five outings.
The 34-year-old wouldn’t be denied, though. On April 20, Luetge flipped a switch, starting a 23-game run where he allowed only three earned runs to score. That was good for an incredible 0.98 ERA with 28 strikeouts over 27.2 magnificent frames.
By the end of the season, after making 57 appearances, Luetge had posted a tremendous 2.74 ERA over 72.1 innings. That’s more outings than Jonathan Loáisiga and more innings pitched than Aroldis Chapman. Luetge’s bWAR (1.5) was equal to the production of infielder DJ LeMahieu.
Not only was he proving that he could stay durable, despite his unprecedented layoff, Luetge was often pitching in high-leverage situations. The southpaw saved a game in August against the rival Red Sox, his first MLB save in over 3,000 days. Heck, Luetge even started a game, working as an opener in Kansas City a week earlier.
For a team that dealt with extreme inconsistencies all year long, mixed with a barrage of injuries, Luetge was legitimately one of the Yankees’ most consistent performers in 2021. He was certainly among the most reliable pitchers in the bullpen, that’s for sure.
His path to pinstripes was remarkable. His ability to produce early and often once the season began was extraordinary. But that still doesn't explain how a player that was out of the league for six years was able to be this effective and consistent, almost as if he didn't miss any time at all.
Pitching coach Matt Blake vividly recalled the excitement that pulsated throughout the organization when New York added Luetge this past offseason. From spin rate to movement profiles, Luetge’s pitch qualities and objective metrics caught the pitching guru’s eye right away.
“Once we kind of sat down with him and ironed out ‘this is what you do well, we want you to do it a lot,’ I think it gave him confidence to be himself. There was never any talk of this guy's a minor leaguer and hasn't been in the Major Leagues,” Blake explained to Inside the Pinstripes. “Ultimately, when we put him on the roster, I don't think anything ever fazed him. It's a testament to his maturity, where he is in his career and his life and how he's felt stable with who he is. It shows when he goes out there and competes.”
With a little help from Blake and his staff, Luetge was able to take his untapped potential, tweak certain aspects of his game and turn it all into outs. Even for a pitcher that averages just 88.3 mph on his cutter, the offering that Luetge uses over 60% of the time, the left-hander had a knack for inducing weak contact and avoiding barrels.
By the end of the season, Luetge was ranked in the league’s 94th percentile in Barrel % and 92nd percentile in HardHit%. Opponents were barreling up his pitches only 4.4% of the time, eighth best among all big-league pitchers with more than 200 Batted Ball Events in 2021.
Asked why the reliever was able to have so much success, backup catcher Kyle Higashioka explained that Luetge’s cut fastball is “invisible.”
“I can’t explain it. Some people have it, some people don’t,” Higashioka quipped.
Luetge also influenced batters to chase at an elite rate. Credit to the southpaw’s gorgeous, knee-buckling curveball, a pitch that routinely made some of the league’s best hitters look silly (and earned recognition from Pitching Ninja on social media on more than one occasion).
Of the 189 curveballs that Luetge threw in 2021, opponents had just five hits (all singles) with a Whiff% of 51.4. That’ll happen when your curve has 65.4 inches of vertical drop.
Luetge’s breaking ball has always been his putaway pitch, but if you look back to his first few years in the league, the reliever’s pitch mix has changed. In Seattle, Luetge relied heavily on a sinker, darting in on left-handed hitters with arm-side movement. Now, everything that Luetge throws moves to the right.
“He reinvented himself,” said right-hander Michael King, cracking a smile. “At 34 years old—even though I say he's 100—it's incredible to totally reinvent yourself and have success at this level. The way that he's able to do it has been huge for our team, but also the analytics department, all those guys knew that he was gonna go out there and compete for us and be successful.”
Perhaps the most important attribute in Luetge’s arsenal, however, is his ability to throw strikes, regardless of the pitch or the situation. The 34-year-old issued just 15 walks all season long. Facing a total of 301 batters, that’s equivalent to a 5% walk rate, ranked in the top 6% of Major League pitchers.
With that kind of command, it’s no surprise that Luetge was able to pitch so many innings this season, limiting his pitch count for much of the year even as Boone and the coaching staff continued to use him. The lefty pitched two-plus innings in relief 11 different times. He didn’t walk a batter in any of those outings.
“Just trying to stay consistent and attack hitters,” Luetge said. “Like most pitchers, you get into trouble when you get behind and walk people. So that's my goal. Make them put it in play and whatever happens after that, you can't control.”
He doesn’t light up the radar gun, he doesn’t have a flashy delivery and unless it’s a big spot, he doesn’t show too much emotion on the mound. Luetge just goes out there and gets the job done, time and time again
“He’s not overpowering, but at the same time, he pitches like he’s overpowering,” bullpen coach Mike Harkey explained. “Almost a strikeout per inning and gets a lot of weak contact.”
The praise that Luetge garnered from his teammates and coaches wasn’t limited to his on-field performance. New York’s reliever was viewed as a first-class teammate, a coachable player and a low-maintenance member of the bullpen.
“He knows what he needs to get done. And if there's ever anything he has questions on, he's not afraid to come and ask them,” Blake said. “As a pitching coach, that's all you can ask for.”
Reliever Chad Green added that he and those in the ‘pen had no idea what to expect when Luetge showed up to spring training. It's safe to say they were all pleasantly surprised.
“He's been a great addition to our bullpen, somebody that we've relied a lot on,” Green said. “Just getting to know him over the past six months or so has been great. We keep it pretty loose down there.”
You can take his word for it. In fact, Luetge, Green and King all spent time living together, crashing in a three-bedroom spot this summer.
“He immediately comes into a locker room and is just a good dude,” King explained. “I got along with him great in spring training. You want to call him a savvy vet because he's 100 years old and bald, but he's like a little kid at heart. He eats applesauce for breakfast and he had Taco Bell last night for dinner.”
Green added that Luetge gave his younger roommates some tips about how they can be handier around the house in the offseason.
“This is such an easy team to get along with and to come right in as a new guy, it helps that I'm older, so I kind of know how to go about it,” Luetge added. “Everybody has been welcoming and accepting.”
Above all else, Luetge achieved his dreams this season as a husband and a father. Completing a six-year quest back to the big leagues is a feat that deserves plenty of accolades, but to do it for those in his corner makes it even more special.
“I'm glad that we were able to have fans in the stadium this year. This would have been real depressing for me if I made it back last year and nobody was able to see me,” Luetge said. “That's what I've always wanted. For my boys to watch me play and know what's going on.”
Luetge joked that he used to watch Vladimir Guerrero and Ken Griffey have their kids on the field, wishing he could someday do the same. With the pandemic and certain protocols in the Bronx, the lefty’s three youngsters haven’t had a chance to mingle with the other players or take the field just yet, but as you can imagine, having them at the ballpark to watch their dad pitch has been incredibly meaningful.
His family better get used to it, though. With the way the 34-year-old performed in 2021, it seems like the left-hander has a bright future ahead of him at this level, distancing himself from the odyssey that previously defined him.
“Once you can prove that you can pitch in New York, after not pitching in the big leagues for six years, and to have the success that he's had pretty much the whole season, I think there's no reason that he shouldn't be able to continue to do that,” Green said.