Royals Keep Adding Stuff to Staff With Lugo, Stratton Agreements

Seth Lugo
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, the Royals continued to bolster a pitching staff that desperately needs bolstering, signing Seth Lugo to a three-year, $45 million deal, and Chris Stratton to a one-year, $4 million pact. After signing left-hander Will Smith over the weekend and infielder Garrett Hampson in late November, the Royals have been among this offseason’s most active teams on the free-agent market. With Lugo, the club has made its fourth-largest financial commitment to a free agent in franchise history, and the largest since signing Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy to the two biggest contracts in franchise history after winning the World Series in 2015.

KC’s Biggest Free Agent Contracts
Player Date Years Total
Alex Gordon 2016 4 $72MM
Ian Kennedy 2016 5 $70MM
Gil Meche 2006 5 $55MM
Seth Lugo 2023 3 $45MM

That Lugo will be made one of the richest Royals ever says more about the market size and the finances of the club than it does about his value, but he makes for a nice add for a team who came out of 2023 with a lot more questions (Jordan Lyles? Brady Singer? Daniel Lynch IV?) than answers (Cole Ragans!) in the starting rotation. Kansas City identified a target in a crowded starting pitching market and went after him with an aggressive offer, and they’ve landed our 22nd-ranked free agent of the winter. Stratton, meanwhile, gives them another veteran in the bullpen at a modest cost.

What Lugo has pulled off since this time last year is remarkable. After spending the better part of five seasons in the Mets’ bullpen, he managed to sell his services to the Padres as a starter last December, signing a two-year deal worth around $15 million with an opt-out after the first season. He slotted into the Padres’ rotation to begin the season and made 26 starts, missing a month with a calf strain but still managing to post a 3.57 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 3.76 xFIP, and 2.8 WAR in 146.1 innings, essentially matching his bullpen stats from 2022 over a workload twice the size.

Seth Lugo’s Re-reinvention
Season Team Starts Relief Apps IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP xFIP
2022 NYM 0 62 65.0 9.55 2.49 3.60 3.76 3.51
2023 SDP 26 0 146.1 8.61 2.21 3.57 3.83 3.76

That was all he needed to opt out of the second year and triple the overall value of last winter’s contract this offseason (he again has the opportunity to opt out after 2025). Lugo had been a starter earlier in his career, but a player returning to starting pitching after five years in his 30s, navigating free agency twice and ending up with a three-year deal is not something you see all the time.

It wasn’t always pretty for Lugo in 2023, but it also wasn’t ever that ugly. He continued to do what had worked best for him as a reliever: throwing strikes and getting ground balls. His expected stats based on his batted-ball profile were a little worrisome, but keeping extra runners off the bases and keeping contact on the ground mitigated the damage. He rarely got to seven innings, but he frequently got through six and failed to finish five just four times in 26 turns. His rockiest stretch might have been in mid-September, well after he’d surpassed his career high in innings, but, as if to stomp out any flames of concern heading into his free agency, he threw a gem in his final start of the season on September 26, holding the Giants scoreless over a career-high 8.2 innings.

As Ben Clemens mentioned in his summary of Lugo’s free agency, one of the right-hander’s projects in 2023 will be how best to deploy his pitch mix as a starter. In 2023, his fastballs, particularly the sinker, earned better results than his 100th-percentile-spin curveball. He also picked up his usage a bit on his changeup and started to toy with a slow sweeper. The latter performed well in limited use, but he hasn’t really found a consistent shape for it yet.

That signature curveball is something to keep an eye on. Hitters were on to it in 2023, with its xwOBA ballooning from .255 to .335; it went from being worth 1.7 runs per 100 uses in 2022 to -0.7. The good news, though, is that the stuff models still love it. His 121 Stuff+ grade on the curveball was 11th among the 92 pitchers with a curve who threw 100-plus innings, and his 58 PitchingBot stuff grade was 20th in that same group. Hopefully for Lugo, this means some positive regression to the mean is headed his way.

Lugo’s Curveball Metrics
Year xwOBA RV RV/100 Stuff+ botStf
2022 .255 6 1.7 114 58
2023 .335 -5 -0.7 121 58
SOURCE: Statcast

Lugo’s 2023 season was by all means a success — it got him to this point, after all — but there’s certainly room for refinement. In the meantime, his propensity for throwing strikes and keeping the ball on the ground should offer some confidence that he can hang as a steady mid-rotation arm, as long as he can stay healthy. The Royals offered more than Ben or our readers predicted, but in doing so, they beat the market to a player that could end up looking like a bargain if he can repeat his 2023 effort once or twice over.

When it comes to Stratton, the Royals have a versatile right-hander with experience in all innings and covering multiple frames at a time, not to mention a World Champion. Stratton came to the Rangers from St. Louis at the deadline and was effective down the stretch. He has historically had some issues limiting walks, but he managed to cut his walk rate from 9.0% to 7.4% in 2023, jumping from the 33rd to 65th percentile.

This past season, Stuff+ graded all four of Stratton’s four-seamer, slider, curveball, and changeup as above average, with the curve highest at 128. He, too, is known for having a high-spin curve; in fact, the only two pitchers with a higher average spin rate on their curveballs in 2023 were Ryan Pressly and Stratton’s new teammate Lugo.

Highest Curveball Spin, 2023
Player Curveballs Average Spin (RPM)
Ryan Pressley 260 3,288
Seth Lugo 692 3,240
Chris Stratton 255 3,223
Phil Maton 418 3,156
Charlie Morton 1,226 3,088
SOURCE: Statcast
*min. 250 curveballs

But Stratton’s real calling card is his ability to eat innings out of the bullpen. He finished fourth in baseball with 82.2 relief innings in 64 appearances in 2023, including 35 outings of at least four outs. Since 2020, the only pitcher with more innings in relief than his 253 is Tyler Rogers with 258.2. He hasn’t spent time on the injured list in over four full seasons since 2019. Not that his ability to stay healthy is any guarantee, but after the Royals used 31 different relievers in 2023 — their most ever in a single season — some stability could go a long way.

Most Relief IP, 2020–2023
Name G IP
1 Tyler Rogers 245 258.2
2 Chris Stratton 218 253.0
3 Scott Barlow 235 246.2
4 Hector Neris 239 229.2
5 Kyle Finnegan 226 226.2
6 Brent Suter 181 222.2
7 Phil Maton 222 218.2

Stratton is actually the third addition to the Royals’ bullpen this offseason, following not just Smith but also Nick Anderson, who Kansas City acquired from Atlanta in November. It’s a brand new look for a group whose main holdover is James McArthur.

The Royals need all the help they can get. They moved in the wrong direction in 2023, finishing a dismal 56–106 and matching the worst record of their 55-season history, and pitching had a whole lot to do with it, with the starting rotation and bullpen both posting ERAs over 5.00 (and FIPs and xFIPS over 4.60). The lineup was not much better, but improvements on the mound are more than welcome, and a full season of Ragans alongside Lugo and a revamped bullpen is a good place to start.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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4 months ago

I was very skeptical of the Padres signing Lugo to be a starter and ended up looking silly in hindsight.
One interesting part of Lugo’s 2023 was his times through the order record.
1st: OPS .624
2nd: OPS .724
3rd: OPS .833

3rd time through the order penalty is well established but 2nd time through the order penalty is uncommon yet perhaps unsurprising for Lugo who last started 10+ games 6 years ago. Of course, these are ~230 PAs for 1st/2nd TTO so some of it is just noise. If Lugo can address this issue (plausible) and if he can stay healthy (less plausible over the whole 3 years), this should be a great deal for the Royals.