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Joey Lucchesi is fighting for a spot in the Mets’ rotation

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And with Carlos Carrasco possibly being delayed with an elbow issue, he might just win it.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Colorado Rockies Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Back in January, Sandy Alderson pulled a Jerry Dipoto and wiggled himself into a trade at the last minute. The trade was first reported as being just between the Pirates and the Padres, with the Pirates sending Joe Musgrove to San Diego and starter Joey Lucchesi being a piece going back to Pittsburgh. However, the Mets came out of nowhere and wound up being a third team in the deal and landing Lucchesi instead. The Mets sent Endy Rodriguez to the Pirates in exchange.

The southpaw was brought in as fifth starter depth with the potential to be an arm out of the bullpen. A former top-10 prospect in the Padres system, Lucchesi is known for his signature pitch: the “churve.” The pitch is, as you can glean from the name, a mix between a changeup and a curveball. Lucchesi has explained it as being a changeup grip, but having curveball movement.

Lucchesi made his major league debut in 2018 at the age of 24, and he wound up a mainstay in the Padres’ rotation from there. He made 26 starts in 2018 with a very respectable 4.08 ERA while striking out over 26% of hitters.

The lefty entered 2019 as a member of the Padres’ starting rotation, and he made 30 more starts for them in 2019, but saw his numbers fall off a bit, particularly in the second half. His 4.18 ERA over 163.2 innings looks perfectly fine for a bottom of the rotation pitcher, but there were some red flags when you zoom in more. Not only did his strikeout rate drop, but his ERA was 4.52 in the second half, largely because his walk rate spiked over 10% for his last 12 starts. As an Italian-American, Lucchesi is probably used to walkin’ here, but he shouldn’t be letting his opponents walk that much. What’s more, he lost velocity as the season went on, with his fastball average dropping from 91.4 in April to 89.7 in September.

Lucchesi entered 2020 as the Padres’ fourth starter and was only given two starts before being optioned to the alternate site when the rosters contracted from 30 to 28. He had earned that demotion with his two starts, having failed to go four innings in his first start and getting knocked around in his second start for six hits and three runs over just 1.2 innings pitched. He’d return to the big league roster only once more, as the 29th man for a double header, to record one out in relief on September 16th. He did not appear again, as the Padres had acquired Mike Clevinger to take his spot in the rotation by that point.

Lucchesi has been ticketed for either the minors or the bullpen since the Mets signed Taijuan Walker last month, but Carlos Carrasco’s delayed start and his bout of elbow soreness throwing off his season ramp-up may open up a spot for Lucchesi or Jordan Yamamoto for the first turn or two through the rotation.

Lucchesi will mix in a cutter and a four-seam fastball occasionally, but mostly relies on the churve and his sinker; the two pitches combined made up nearly 90 percent of the pitches he threw in 2018 and 2019. Because of his lack of velocity, the sinker is mostly just an average pitch, but the churve is where Lucchesi has found his success. The pitch had a whiff rate of nearly 20% in 2018 and over 18% in 2019 according to Brooks Baseball. He’s going to need to get whiffs like that again if he wants to be valuable to the Mets.

The major bugaboo that has held Lucchesi back so far has been his inability to pitch deep into games. He’s made 58 starts in his career and has completed just 299 innings as a starter—an average of just over five innings per start. That’s because Lucchesi’s numbers fall off the table the third time through the order. The southpaw has held opposing hitters to a .295 wOBA for the first time through the order and a .297 wOBA the second time through so far in his career, but hitters have a staggering .394 wOBA against him the third time through. That’s a .312/.395/.548 batting line and a 7.58 ERA once hitters have seen him a third time.

Considering he’s mostly a one-trick pony, that makes sense. Once hitters have seen the churve, they can adjust to it. Lucchesi has tried to adjust back by throwing in a curveball at times and tinkering with a more natural four-seamer, but he’s yet to find success doing so.

Until he can avoid getting ravaged the third time through, Lucchesi will struggle to be anything more than five-and-dive guy at the back of a rotation. That said, the Mets don’t need him to be much more than that as it stands right now, and his two-pitch mix could play up in the bullpen, if given the chance. The 27-year-old is not a fantastically exciting arm, but he is a much better starter than the Mets have typically brought in as depth under previous regimes.