Seth Lugo has a quality bender, and he relied on it heavily this year. The New York Mets righty ranked seventh among qualified relievers in curveball frequency at 33.9%. It’s hard to argue with the results. Lugo made 54 appearances — all but five out of the bullpen — and logged a 2.66 ERA and a 3.17 FIP while fanning 103 batters in 101.1 innings.
The increased usage — and the effectiveness that went along with it — stood out to Travis Sawchik. My former FanGraphs colleague likened Lugo to a right-handed Rich Hill in this informative piece that ran on these electronic pages back in mid-June.
Two months later, I asked Lugo for the story behind his go-to pitch, and about his approach to attacking hitters.
Seth Lugo on learning to throw a curveball: “My dad was my coach growing up. We used to go to a local college — Centenary College, in Shreveport, Louisiana — and the coach there showed my dad how to teach young pitchers to throw breaking balls, curveballs. He showed him what he thought was safe, what would keep your elbow healthy.
“He used a tennis-ball container. You’d throw it, and make sure that it went end-over-end. That way you’d be taking pressure off your elbow. I was throwing a tennis-ball container and making sure it was spinning the same way. Or maybe a Pringles container. Either one. If it started to spin sideways instead of going end-over-end … that’s not how you want to throw it. Anyway, you’d practice that a few times, then switch to a curveball. That’s how I learned. This was when I was 10 or 11 years old.
“I remember when I was 12 or 13, playing travel ball. My dad used to tell me: ‘make it bite.’ In my head, that meant getting out front and spinning it as much as I could. Same thing now. I really haven’t made an adjustment from that in 16 years.”
On the shape of his curveball: “Most times, it’s 12-to-6. Sometimes I’ll try to manipulate it just a little bit, to go right to left. That’s if I really want to keep it away from a right-handed batter, or maybe if I want to go backdoor to a lefty. But it’s just a little bit — not much at all.
“Last year, and the year before that, I didn’t have very good command. I was having some mechanical issues, so I wouldn’t trying to manipulate it. Even now. Some days I don’t have as good a feel for my curveball, so I just throw it and try to be consistent. But when I’m on … then I can start messing with things like speeds and angles.
“It’s a hard pitch to throw, so it’s not every day that you can do exactly what you want with it. A slider, you’re releasing out front like a fastball. Changeup, same thing. But a curveball, your wrist is … it’s the only pitch where you’re not staying behind the ball. This year I’ve had a pretty good feel, so I’m throwing it a lot more. In past years, I didn’t throw it as much, because I didn’t quite know where it was going.”
On mixing his pitches: “If I feel like hitters are looking for my curveball, I either won’t throw it as much or I’ll throw it in the dirt and try to get chases. It really depends on the batter and the situation. For the most part, I don’t know if I’m going to use it a lot on a given day. It depends on how the starter uses his (breaking ball) — how the hitters are looking on his off-speed pitches, how they’re looking on his fastballs.
“Some lineups like the pitch down, so a curveball might not be the best pitch that day. Other guys are high-ball hitters, so the curveball … I mean, I might throw five or six of them in a row. Some teams will be looking for either a curveball or a fastball up. I’ll notice that from their takes and their swings — they’re kind of guessing what I’m going to do — and that’s when I’ll break out my slider. Or I’ll throw my two-seamer. I throw both a two and a four, and I’d say I’m about 50/50 as to which one I throw more.
“I have a changeup, too; a two-seam circle. I don’t throw it as much as I do my other pitches, but I like my changeup. Frankly, I probably feel more comfortable throwing it than I do my curveball or slider. But those pitches are better, so I go with them more often.”
On working up in the zone and avoiding information overload: “I know that I need to be able to work up. That’s a trend in baseball right now. I was telling someone the other day that you go through college and the minors being taught to pitch down, yet the hitters that are being promoted are better low-ball hitters. The higher you go in baseball … like in the big leagues. Batters are better at low balls than they are at fastballs up, because everybody in the minors is pitching at the knees. That opens up the top of the zone. I don’t think the top of the zone plays as well in the minors as it does in the big leagues.
“If a hitter is going to put a good swing on a pitch down, he has to drive that back leg and stay back with it. But you can’t have that same swing on a pitch up. It just doesn’t play. They’re two different swings. I look for that when I’m watching hitters — who is staying on top of the ball, and who is getting under the ball. You can tell by their lower half, and by their swing path.
“You don’t see it much, but some guys will change their approach within an at bat. Early on, or if they’re ahead in the count, they’re looking for something down they can lift. Later in the at bat, they’re staying short. Brian Anderson, with the Marlins, is good at that. He’ll shorten up and stay on top of the ball late, so he’s less likely to get beat by elevated fastballs. Guys like that are the toughest hitters for me.
“I don’t [look at pitch data]. I have in the past, but I feel that it makes me think too much about things that are so hard to control and perfect — those little numbers, the RPMs and the release points. It’s information overload. I have to just go out there and throw my curveball, throw my pitches.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.