After being one of the best relievers in baseball in 2018 and 2019, Seth Lugo had a somewhat disappointing year in the shortened 2020 season. Moved to the starting rotation for the final six weeks of the season, Lugo struggled, and finished the year with an ERA over 5. Heading into 2021, Lugo was expected to be a big piece of a revamped Mets’ bullpen that would help the team compete at the top of the NL East.
These plans changed rather quickly in early February, when it was announced that Lugo would undergo surgery on his throwing elbow. This was not the first time Lugo has had an injury in his throwing arm, as he had been pitching with a partially torn UCL for the past three-plus seasons. The surgery, which removed a loose body from Lugo’s elbow, sidelined him for the first two months of the season, and left a hole in the middle of the Mets’ bullpen.
After a short rehab stint with the St. Lucie and Syracuse Mets, Lugo returned to the majors and made his season debut in the beginning of June while the Mets were in Arizona. Lugo’s first appearance of the year was a rocky one, as he pitched two innings of relief against the Diamondbacks, surrendering three hits and one run, while striking out two batters.
After his first outing of the season, Lugo was able to settle into a groove for the rest of the month of June, pitching to a 2.19 ERA through his first 12 appearances, and striking out 12.6 batters per 9 innings. Despite these good numbers, there was a constant theme in Lugo’s outings, in that he was no longer pitching two innings as regularly as fans had grown accustom to, as well as needing multiple days off in between several appearances.
Lugo’s numbers never looked quite as good after his solid June, as he struggled at times. From July 1 to the end of the season, he took a step backwards from the 2.19 ERA he had in June and pitched to a 3.97 ERA and 4.26 FIP over his final 34 appearances, in addition to striking out 10.1 batters per 9 innings, also lower from the start of his season.
There are several possibilities for why Lugo struggled for much of 2021. The easiest answer would be that coming off the elbow surgery he had in February, he’s no longer the dominant reliever we saw in 2019 that can be relied upon often. Throughout the course of the second half of the season, manager Luis Rojas either opted to use a less-heralded option in the bullpen over Lugo, or only use him for one inning. Perhaps the best example of this came on September 14th, where the Mets lost to the Cardinals in 11 innings, all but sealing their fate that they would not make the postseason. Lugo, who had a day of rest, was not used by Rojas at any point in the game, as he instead opted to bring in Jake Reed for the 11th inning, who wound up being the losing pitcher for the Mets.
For Lugo to get back to where he once was for the Mets, he will have to start using the pitches he throws less of more effectively. The elbow surgery he had in the spring did not have an impact on his two best pitches, his four-seam fastball and curveball, as he still had success using those. It was Lugo’s changeup and slider where he struggled the most this year, and is what caused his numbers to dip.
In 2019, the year where Lugo was used only as a reliever, he used his changeup very infrequently compared to other pitches. That year, batters slugged .429 off this pitch, whereas in 2021, hitters were all over his changeup, slugging 1.286. This, along with an ineffective slider where batters slugged .714 off it, made for a much less effective Lugo than in years past.
For the 2022 season and beyond, it’ll be important for Lugo to have his slider and changeup both be adequate to help compliment his fastball and curveball. After 2022, which will be his age-32 season, Lugo is set to become a free agent, and will surely want to show potential suitors he is still a top end bullpen arm. It remains to be seen if the next manager of the Mets will be able consistently use him as a two-inning man like in 2019, but if he were able to return to that form, he would be a great asset to the Mets and their bullpen.