Lucas Luetge has moved ever so close to a major league game since last pitching in one nearly six years ago.
Luetge appeared in one game in 2015, in late April. He was brought back to the Mariners the following month when Joe Beimel went home for a child’s graduation. But Luetge never got into a game.
There were four days in May 2016 when he was called up by the Angels, but Luetge never so much as warmed up and was designated for assignment as a goodbye.
The lefty made his first All-Star Game as a 32-year-old in Double-A in 2018 after a season lost following Tommy John surgery. The Diamondbacks then sent him to Triple-A, just a step away. Luetge waited and waited, sure a promotion was near. It wasn’t.
After that season – after that disappointment – he was called on the first day of minor league free agency by the A’s and Yankees. He picked Oakland, figuring the smaller market team would use its minor league system more often. “Hindsight is 20-20,” he notes. The A’s produced the majors’ best bullpen ERA in the shortened 2020 season and had few injuries. So while Luetge performed well at the alternate site, he never received the call. The odyssey continued.
He was 33 when the season ended. A father of three. He contemplated, what next? But the Yankees called again on Day 1 of minor league free agency this past offseason. Another sign to Luetge that he was not deluding himself; others believed he could be a major leaguer again too.
“After the Tommy John surgery, I wanted to see what it would be like with my arm not hurting and  I pitched so well I thought I should be in the majors,” Luetge said by phone. “Teams are still calling. I believe I could still pitch [in the majors]. So I am going to keep trying until it happens.”
Luetge has been one of the revelations of camp. Yankees assistant GM Mike Fishman, who pursued Luetge each of the last two years and signed him to a minor league deal this offseason, said: “A lot of people are talking about him [in camp]. He is opening eyes with how he is performing — and the quality of the stuff too. He has swing-and-miss pitches.”
It is early. Spring training can be deceiving. But as Luetge said, “Every free-agent minor leaguer’s plan is to start off hot. They tell us the first little bit does not matter, but first impressions do matter.”
Luetge has faced 11 hitters in three spring games and struck out eight. On Sunday against Philadelphia, he wiped out the 1-2-3 of the order – Andrew McCutchen, Didi Gregorius and Bryce Harper.
“He has absolutely jumped out at us,” Aaron Boone told reporters.
The Yankees were attracted by many items, notably the elite spin rates Luetge had on his cutter, curve and slider in the minors in 2019 and from the available data from the alternate site last year. Luetge used to throw a sinker, broke his finger with the Mariners’ minor league system in 2015 and found he had cut on his fastball when the finger healed. A scout who has seen Luetge this spring says that while the fastball is just 89-92 mph, it plays up because of the spin rate, the ability to drive it down in the zone and to play it off the two late-moving breaking balls.
Still, Luetge understands just how far that last step to the majors is. He was a Rule 5 pick by the Mariners out of the Brewers system after the 2011 season and worked in 68 games in 2012, including a June 8 game when he was one of six pitchers to tag-team a no-hitter vs. the Dodgers. But from 2013 until the Mariners finally outrighted him in 2015, Luetge was optioned to the minors 10 times, battling control issues and what his agent Mike McCann called a “bit of fatalism” in his frustration to make it back for good.
On April 25, 2015, Luetge pitched 2 1/3 shutout innings of relief against the Twins. That was his last major league appearance. How long ago was that? The final batter he faced, Torii Hunter, was up for the Hall of Fame for the first time this offseason. Since April 26, 2015, 1,670 players have pitched in a major league game. Chris Gimenez, a catcher, pitched in 10.
Luetge could not get back for even one. He tried with the Angels, then the Reds in 2017 before using an out to get to the Orioles where, during his fourth Triple-A appearance, he heard a pop in his elbow. That would lead to a missed 2018. The Diamondbacks in 2019. The A’s in 2020. And eventually a personal phone call from Fishman, a video presentation and a decision this time to join the Yankees.
Sure, he noticed in recent weeks when the Yankees signed another lefty, Justin Wilson, to go along with Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman. Luetge does not have an out in his contract until June 1, unless an Asian team is willing to sign him. So the Yanks can stash him at Triple-A for depth. But Fishman said the Yanks do not care about how many lefties they have in the pen as long as they can get hitters from both slides out. Fishman declared Luetge “in the competition.”
And Luetge, who turns 34 at the end of this month, is motivated for the chance. His children – Eva, 7; Gavin, 5; and Jackson, 1 – either were too young to see him pitch in the majors or were not yet born. “I want my kids to see me play,” he said.
So Luetge endures. Hoping the first impression becomes lasting, believing that April 25, 2015 will not be his final major league game.
“That is the goal to show myself and everyone in the world that I can still do this,” Luetge said. “I think I can still do it.”