Ever since Rich Hill tossed convention aside and began using his curveball at an unusually high usage rate, other pitchers have followed the template. That’s how copy-catting best practices typically work. Drew Pomeranz started Hill-ing. So did Lance McCullers and, to a slightly less pronounced degree, Charlie Morton. Other have followed suit, too.
Well, we might have another pitcher on the Hill Plan — or, at least a modified version of the plan.
After throwing his curveball at 16.6% and 17.4% rates in each of the previous two years, Seth Lugo threw his curveball 32% of the time on Sunday night, nearly in line with his 31.2% rate on the season. It worked. While it’s not Hill-level usage, a 100% increase in pitch usage is notable. In his second start of the year against the vaunted Yankee lineup, Lugo allowed just two hits over six shutout innings striking out eight and allowing no walks.
Here’s a look at that curveball locking up Gary Sanchez:
Here’s a look at the bending pitch, which can also serve as a lefty-neutralizing weapon when located well — as it was against Aaron Hicks:
For his career, the 28-year-old Lugo has held lefties to a .289 wOBA, while righties have produced a slightly higher mark (.298).
The former 34th-round pick nearly has the right-handed version of the Hill curveball. Lugo ranks 41st in vertical movement on his curveball (-8.29 inches) and Hill ranks 48th (-8.13). Hill ranks third in horizontal movement on the pitch (10.65 inches), while Lugo ranks 38th (7.3). Lugo and Hill each get above-average horizontal and vertical movement on the pitch.
While the pitch hasn’t been a major swing-and-miss offering, it does have the second highest-called strike rate in the game at 59%, trailing only Jace Fry (minimum 50 curves thrown). Hill has also enjoyed high called-strike rates on the pitch since his revitalization.
While he doesn’t throw his curveball as high as Hill, that’s because basically no one does: Hill ranks third in the majors with an average curveball height at the plate of 2.4 feet. Lugo ranks 21st this season with an average z-height at the plate of 2.11 feet.
Lugo throws a two-seam and four-seam fastballs. His four-seam fastball has the 32nd highest average height upon reaching the plate (2.94 feet), not much different than Hill’s average height of 2.71 feet. They are each able to pair the pitches to create something of a tunneling effect.
Hill and Lugo both average just under 10 inches of vertical movement on their fastballs. Amongst all pitchers to have thrown at least 50 fastballs this season, Lugo ranks 47th in whiff-per-swing percentage (29.9%). His fastball spin rate has averaged 2,270 rpms since 2015, slightly above the major-league average. While Lugo doesn’t have elite spin, he does have greater velocity with the pitch, averaging 93.8 mph. Opponents are batting just .111 against Lugo’s four-seam fastball with a .133 slugging mark this year and .183 average and .307 slugging mark for his career.
Here’s Lugo getting away with a location mistake to Giancarlo Stanton in part due to life and velocity:
There is now debate about whether Lugo has done enough to warrant a permanent spot in the Mets’ rotation. From John Harper of the N.Y. Daily News:
While [Mets manager] Mickey Callaway has maintained that Lugo is more important to the Mets in the bullpen, he admitted this start may have changed his mind.
“It makes you second guess it,” Callaway said. “That was a tremendous start. I’m sure not too many pitchers have done that to the Yankees this year.
“He’s making a case for himself. We have a tough decision to make, and that’s a good thing.”
Lugo appeared in 19 games and made 18 starts for the Mets a year ago. He totaled a modest 114 ERA- and 4.71/13.95/4.18 ERA/FIP/xFIP slash line. He’s been excellent this year, mostly in a bullpen role, posting a 21.8-point K-BB% mark and a 47 ERA-. While his velocity has bumped up 2 mph this season, perhaps that is not solely tied to pitching in the bullpen, as he held his velocity in his start Sunday.
So Lugo might not necessarily be a better fit in the bullpen; rather, he might have made a usage adjustment and velocity gain that will help him in whatever role he serves. Lugo might be following something of the Hill roadmap to another level of performance. Or perhaps he’s just embraced the Callaway Way: a number of Indians pitchers increased breaking ball usage in Cleveland when Callaway was the pitching coach there. To maximize the performance improvement and what looks like it could be a breakout, the Mets ought to get him as many innings as possible. Lugo might have made himself into something