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ADP Champ or Chump: Seth Lugo

Using a reliever to improve your fantasy squad's ratios has become a trendy strategy, but this author doesn't really get the hype. Sure, it's great if you correctly identify which middle reliever will suddenly morph into a strikeout stud with a microscopic ERA, but it seems like the kind of strategy that requires hindsight to work properly. Worse still, vulture wins contribute a lot of a reliever's value, and those are completely unpredictable even if you target the right arm.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and Seth Lugo of the New York Mets looks like a reliever worth targeting. Part of that is that he's nice and cheap (ADP of 252.8 on FantasyPros), and part of it is that he led the National League in multi-inning relief appearances last year. If you throw multiple high-leverage innings per appearance, you're probably going to wind up with more wins than a stereotypical eighth-inning guy.

Lugo also offers the tremendous upside that fantasy owners look for once 200+ players have left the board. While you probably didn't wake up this morning expecting to read an entire article on a reliever like Lugo, this author believes the experience will be worth your while.

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Season In Review

Lugo was fantastic last season, posting a 2.70 ERA and 3.24 xFIP in 80 IP out of the bullpen. You might think that those numbers look lucky, but Baseball Savant disagrees with that assessment. Per the Statcast-driven xERA metric (which assigns an ERA to a pitcher according to the exit velocities and launch angles he allowed), Lugo deserved a 2.37 ERA last year.

Lugo also set a new career-high with a 33.1 K%, contributing a comparable number of strikeouts to a low-end starter. His usage pattern lent itself well to decisions as well, and Lugo compiled a 7-4 record to go along with his ratios and strikeouts. If you had him last year, you were likely thrilled.

A look under the hood reveals that Lugo's production was slightly over his head in the strikeout department but otherwise appears sustainable. Lugo's five-pitch repertoire revolves around his fastball, which gained half a tick of velocity to 94.8 mph in 2019. Its 56.8 Zone% consistently put Lugo ahead in the count, and a 13% SwStr% was more than capable of putting a hitter away. Lugo threw his heater nearly 10% more often last year than he had in 2018, so he seems to have realized it was his money pitch.

Lugo also threw a plus sinker and while it's 61.2 Zone% was even better than his fastball at getting Lugo ahead in the count, its 8.7 SwStr% was considerably worse. However, there is a big performance gap in his splits with the pitch:

Split Usage wOBA wOBAcon Brl% Weak GB% SwStr% K% BB%
RHB 22% 0.225 0.243 0.0 78.8 54.5 5.6 25.5 7.8
LHB 22% 0.219 0.369 20.0 50.0 30.0 12.5 45.0 5.0

Right-handers don't usually miss the sinker but also have a lot of trouble squaring the pitch up and making solid contact. On the other hand, left-handed batters had much better results but only when they could manage to make contact; Lugo's sinker had the highest swinging-strike and strikeout rate among all his pitches against lefties.

Lugo compliments his fastballs with three secondary offerings: a curve, slider, and changeup. Lugo is famous for his high-spin curve in Statcast circles, with its 3,285 RPM finishing second among all qualified pitchers in 2019. The offering also had an 89.5% Active Spin rate, meaning that the vast majority of that RPM contributed to the pitch's movement. It isn't a fantastic strikeout pitch, with a 10.3 SwStr% and 34.8% chase rate, but it kept hitter off-balance to the tune of a .214/.214/.300 triple-slash line in 2019.

Lugo's slider is the closest thing to a wipeout pitch in his arsenal, but its 51.2 Zone% was too high to call it a put-away offering in the traditional sense. With a 15.2% SwStr%, it's still a nice weapon to have but Lugo also had just a 15.2% K-rate with the pitch. And Lugo's change is more of a show-me pitch, being thrown just 7% in 2019, but does give hitters a different look and rounds out a pretty impressive collection of pitches.

 

Still Room For More?

Considering that Lugo is generally taken outside of the top 250, getting a reliever who contributes better-than-average wins, strikeouts, and ratios is already a nice value. However, there is a lot of potential for more if his role changes.

Most analysts believe that Edwin Diaz will turn it around in 2020, but the fact remains that he was a total dumpster fire last year. If Diaz loses the closing job due to injury or ineffectiveness, his immediate replacement would be Dellin Betancesa guy who lost nearly all of 2019 due to injury. Lugo is third on the Mets depth chart, so he could end up getting saves even if he doesn't have the clearest path to them.

However, the prospect of Seth Lugo as a starter is more intriguing in this author's estimation. Lugo has repeatedly expressed an interest in starting, so player buy-in wouldn't be a problem. Furthermore, the five-pitch mix he uses as a reliever likely wouldn't need any new wrinkles to work for longer stretches. He might lose a little velocity, but his fastball is elite enough that it could take that hit and still be effective.

The Mets also lack good rotation options. Jacob deGrom is obviously amazing, but Noah Syndergaard will miss the entire 2020 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Marcus Stroman's ERA jumped by 81 points when he joined the Mets, while his FIP climbed by 64 points. And like Stroman, Steven Matz, Michael Wacha, and Rick Porcello also are pitch-to-contact pitchers. That might not be the best strategy when your team defense was worth -11 Outs Above Average in 2019 and made no noteworthy personnel changes for 2020.

Lugo can miss bats, which may help him succeed with a mediocre defense behind him. The Mets are also likely to ask him to throw more innings if there is a DH in the NL this year, as they won't need to remove him for a pinch-hitter. If he's already stretched out, it becomes easier to move him into the rotation mid-season once one of the other arms on the team falters. You can't draft Lugo as an SP because there is no guarantee he gets the opportunity, but he'll run with it if he gets a chance.

 

Parting Thoughts

At age 30, Lugo isn't what most owners think of when they think of upside in the latter portion of their drafts. That said, he's almost certain to beat that price as a reliever who gobbles up high-leverage innings. He could become New York's closer and add saves to his line, or he could slot in as the club's number-two starter. Either way, Lugo offers a deep arsenal that figures to provide fantasy owners with strikeouts, ratio help, and wins. There's no way he's not a top-250 player this draft season.

Verdict: Champ (based on quality repertoire and a flexible role that should generate plenty of fantasy value)

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