Part of the reason the Braves have been so successful over their current run? Their acquisitions tend to work out. That pattern makes the exceptions stand out even more. In 2023, Lucas Luetge was definitely an exception... even though his opportunities were fairly limited by his own ineffectiveness.
On December 28, 2022, the Braves traded minor leaguers Indigo Diaz and Caleb Durbin to the Yankees in exchange for Luetge. Despite an 0.9 fWAR relief season in 2022, the Yankees designated Luetge for assignment a week before the trade to free up needed space on their 40-man roster.
The Braves and Luetge avoided arbitration by settling on a $1.55 million salary for the 2023 season.
What were the expectations?
After a five-year hiatus, Luetge returned to the majors in 2021, posting an out-of-nowhere 1.4 fWAR season in which he finished in the top 30 relievers in both innings pitched and overall production. His follow-up in 2022 was worse but still useful, with 57 1⁄3 innings and 0.9 fWAR accumulated. Given that, there was little reason to expect that Luetge wouldn’t be a useful relief option. With an aggregate 67/70/92 line (ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-), it looked like the Braves had added reasonable middle relief on the cheap.
Alas, things went sideways for the Braves and Luetge pretty quickly. Across his first five appearances, he was blasted by opposing teams two times, though only one qualified as a meltdown WPA-wise. After a two-inning stint against the Reds on April 12, Luetge was unavailable for a few games, and then was placed on the Injured List with biceps inflammation in his throwing arm.
Activated in late May, Luetge had a couple of fine outings, and then got blasted twice more, including another meltdown. Needing to make space on the 40-man for A.J. Smith-Shawver, the Braves designated Luetge for assignment on May 30, a day after he retired just one of the five Athletics he faced. Luetge ended up going unclaimed and getting outrighted to Triple-A Gwinnett, but did not reject the assignment.
The Braves later called him up for a two-game stint after the All-Star Break, where at one point he was the team’s only left-handed reliever. He was then designated for assignment again, once again accepted the minor league stint when outrighted, and recalled once more after the Braves clinched. His final appearance as a Brave came on September 18, with two scoreless innings against the Phillies. The Braves then designated him for assignment a third time, and yet again, he was outrighted and went back down to Gwinnett to pitch.
In aggregate, across those four active stints, Luetge made 13 appearances and pitched 12 1⁄3 innings with an unimpressive 163/113/104 line, “good” for -0.1 fWAR. He finished with -0.31 WPA and two meltdowns without recording a shutdown. His walk rate ballooned into the double digits, and his whiffs seriously eroded.
What went right?
From an organizational perspective, the only thing you can point to here is that the Braves apparently made Luetge feel like it was worth sticking around in Gwinnett multiple times. Beyond that, no one really got anything they wanted out of Luetge’s presence.
But hey, here’s him striking out Jonathan India...
...before giving up the go-ahead run (in a game the Braves came back to win).
What went wrong?
Broadly, there are a lot of meta-narratives about what went wrong with Luetge’s season.
One thing you could point to is the difficulty that teams have managing pitching staffs in today’s high-injury, low-workload, hard-roster-and-option-and-IL-length-limits environment. Because of his injury and the need to keep managing the 40-man, the Braves had to pull the switch on cutting bait with Luetge after just 9 2⁄3 innings, spanning 51 batters faced. Any pitcher can have a bad stretch of 50 batters, but the Braves couldn’t wait around for his fortunes to turn around.
Another thing that sticks out, and not just in retrospect, is that the Braves went into the 2023 season with perhaps too many innings-munching long relief options, and struggled to find more traditional middle relief-y alternatives. The Braves’ Opening Day roster included Collin McHugh, Jesse Chavez, Kirby Yates, and Michael Tonkin in addition to Luetge — even if you exclude Yates from the group as more of a speculative middle relief guy, those four guys combined for just 1.0 fWAR (of which 0.7 was Chavez, and which drops to 0.9 if you add Yates back in). The result of a lot of space dedicated to the sponging of relief innings was forcing Luetge and others to work higher-leverage middle relief, and only Chavez really acceded to that role in an effective way. The Braves didn’t really need Luetge by the time the season rolled around, and they acted accordingly fairly quickly.
But, that’s not to say that Luetge was solely a victim of circumstance, because his command tanked in 2023. When he had his out-of-nowhere resurgence in 2021, here were his pitch heat maps:
That’s almost pinpoint slider command, and a fairly controlled cutter that provided useful vertical separation. Things were worse but not problematically so in 2022, but 2023 was a disaster:
If your cutter inexplicably misses the specific location where it was effective and either fails to clip the zone or ends up in the heart of the plate, and your sweeper went from a pinpoint corner placement to way too many misses that don’t slice that same corner, what do you get? DFAed three times, apparently.
Could these command issues have been resolved with greater exposure? Sure, guys have issues for 12 innings that don’t appear in a greater collection of other innings all the time. On the flip side, Luetge’s stints at Gwinnett (24 innings, 4.70 FIP, 4.29 xFIP) suggest that whatever fix was needed proved elusive. Sometimes guys just lose it — and sometimes relievers never had it, and their small samples of work just made everyone think they did. That’s what makes reliever evaluation so tricky, and the Braves may have just gotten bitten by it this time around.
Here’s what happened after Luetge struck out India in the clip above: a not particularly well-hit ball into center, by a lefty batter no less, that ended up pushing the go-ahead run across:
Luetge elected free agency last month. Sure, someone will look at his 2021-2022 vis-a-vis his 2023 and give him a shot, maybe even with a bigger-than-league-minimum salary provided he makes their team out of Spring Training. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the Braves, though, his predilection for sticking with the franchise despite the three DFAs aside.
To me, Luetge probably has as much of a chance of being a fine reliever as most other relief-type arms out there, though his inability to mow down Triple-A hitters was a bummer. With that said, he’s going to be 37 before the 2024 season begins, so there are going to be a lot of younger competitors for a major league roster spot no matter where he lands. It wouldn’t surprise me if he fixed his command problems and pulled out another randomly good relief season next year, though — how about you?