John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Jacob deGrom pushed himself a little closer to a second straight Cy Young Award with seven brilliant innings on Monday night, and yet there's a case to be made that he was the Mets' second-best pitcher in the 3-1 win against the Diamondbacks.
Seth Lugo was that good, retiring six straight hitters, four by strikeout.
"They didn't have a chance against him," was the way one scout who was at Citi Field described Lugo's outing on Tuesday. "For me, he was even more dominant than deGrom. It's two innings compared to seven, but he flat overmatched hitters with his mix of curveball and fastball.
"I'm not surprised. He's had a long stretch here where he's been one of the best relievers in the game."
Indeed, over the second half of the season, Lugo arguably has been the best reliever in baseball, unscored upon in 22 of his 24 appearances since the end of June.
His only bad outing during that time, in fact, was the memorable night in Atlanta a few weeks ago when Mickey Callaway made a hurried decision to bring Lugo in after the Mets took a lead, and the right-hander may or may not have had enough time to warm up.
He certainly didn't look like himself that night, giving up five runs in one third of an inning. If you take that performance out of the equation, given the extenuating circumstances, Lugo has pitched to a minuscule 0.29 ERA over his last 23 appearances, giving up one run in 30 2/3 innings.
Even counting that game against the Braves, Lugo has held hitters to a .118 batting average in the second half this season while pitching to a crazy-good 0.50 WHIP.
Obviously, then, considering the ongoing ineptitude of Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia this season, it's fair to say the Mets' Wild Card hopes would be long gone if Lugo hadn't saved the bullpen from complete disaster.
As such he just might be their second-half MVP, even with the long-ball heroics of Pete Alonso and the every-fifth-day dominance of deGrom.
The only issue is availability. Lugo needs more rest between outings than most late-inning relievers, which may or may not be the result of the partial tear in his elbow ligament. It has led Callaway to use him for two innings at a time lately, knowing he'll likely need a day off anyway.
All of which still makes for a reasonable debate about whether Lugo would be better as a starter or a reliever. One scout points to the success Lugo had in the World Baseball Classic in 2017 as reason to put in the starting rotation.
"I'd like to see if his stuff translates as a starter over the course of a season," the scout said. "You could manage his rest that way, and you might have yourself a top-of-the-rotation starter."
It's an intriguing thought, especially since the Mets might need to replace Zack Wheeler in the rotation next year. But a Mets' person points out that Lugo's elbow problem seemed to be at least partly the result of his workload as a starter in that WBC, raising questions about how many innings he could endure as a starter.
And perhaps most significantly, Lugo has simply become too valuable as a reliever for the Mets to transition him back to starting next season.
After all, however these last few weeks play out, there's no way the Mets can go into next season with any confidence about Familia, to whom they owe $23 million over the next two seasons, and Diaz, who they really should try to trade, as a I wrote in a column last week.
The problem is, because Lugo will likely continue to require extra rest, they can't simply count on him as a full-time closer.
Ideally, he'd be the bullpen wild card, a la Andrew Miller with the Indians in 2016. More likely, the Mets will have to use him as their primary closer, much as the Brewers did with Josh Hader this season.
Moving from strikeout-machine, set-up man to closer, the Brewers' lefty has pitched in 52 games totaling 66 innings, while racking up 121 strikeouts. Hader has recorded 29 saves but blown six, while other relievers have totaled 11 saves.
Such a model could work for the Mets, presuming they could find someone reliable to ride shotgun for Lugo next season. As it is, he has pitched in 54 games this season totaling 71 innings, similar to Hader's workload, only without the save opportunities until the last few weeks.
"He's a great weapon for them," another scout said Wednesday. "The key is managing his workload. When he's fresh, his curveball freezes hitters with that sharp break, and his fastball has late life that hitters can't catch up to.
"When he's overworked his stuff flattens out, but they've done a good job giving him rest in the second half and you've seen the results. With all the problems teams are having with bullpens this season, Lugo is a guy whose value is through the roof."
Fortunately for the Mets, he's also under contractual control for three more seasons, as he heads toward turning age 30 in November. It's quite a remarkable success story, considering Lugo was a 34th round draft pick out of Centenary College (La.) in 2011.
The trick for the Mets is to continue resisting the urge to overwork him, no matter how tempting it may be after nights like Monday when he looked practically unhittable.