Cory Luebke tossed five no-hit innings against the Colorado Rockies last night, and did so in Colorado. He finished the outing after seven innings, striking out nine Rockies while walking three and allowing one hit. This start came roughly a year after his major-league debut against Colorado, in which he lasted just five frames while allowing two walks to three strikeouts, as well as two homers -- but did so in pitcher-friendly Petco Park.
Luebke's first career start was much like what many expected from him. He pitched like a fifth starter would, not striking out a ton of hitters, giving up some big hits, but generally keeping his team in it. Baseball America rated Luebke the #6 prospect in the system heading into 2010, and labeled him the fifth starter for the projected 2013 lineup. Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus ranked Luebke the #12 prospect in the organization, saying he "could fit in the back of the rotation down the road."
Luebke had fantastic command in the minors, but his stuff was merely average. Many pitchers with quality command can thrive in the high minors but fail in the majors, once they are facing the top hitters on the planet night after night. The lack of a true out pitch dooms these pitchers, as they can put the ball anywhere they want, but they have trouble putting hitters away as they tend to have to nibble to avoid having their average stuff go yard.
Luebke's used his pitches even more effectively than anyone could have imagined, though, and has now punched out 10 batters per nine in his 151 MLB innings, and against just 2.7 walks per nine. It's clear something has clicked for him -- he struck out 7.5 batters per nine with a 3.6 K/BB ratio in the minors.
Luebke has three pitches he relies on, but he leans heavily on his fastball/slider combination to succeed. He throws his 91-m.p.h. four-seam fastball for strikes at a league-average rate, but induces swings-and-misses on it more often than that. This pitch, thrown over two-thirds of the time, sets up his slider, a pitch that has been devastating to opposing hitters in 2011. Luebke's slider has induced swings-and-misses 18 percent of the time, compared to the league- average 13 percent, and is the main reason why he is whiffing 10 batters per nine in 2011 as both a starter and a reliever.
He's not a product of Petco, either, as Luebke has a 2.55 ERA and 3.7 K/BB ratio in 71 road innings. Small sample, sure, but that slider is hard to hit regardless of how far back the fences are.
The real reason Luebke has been this good is his success against left-handers. He gets his outs against right-handers, too, as he's held them to a line of .227/.286/.388 -- good for an OPS allowed 21 percent better than the league average in that split -- but he is unreal against his fellow southpaws. Luebke has held lefties to .160/.229/.198 over 145 plate appearances, 68 percent better than average.
This -- well, not to this degree -- is something we could have seen coming. Prior to Luebke's first start, he got a write-up at Baseball Prospectus from a certain author who is no longer there:
Excuse the small samples here, but Luebke was superb against left-handers at Portland: an ERA of 1.80, 18 strikeouts and just three walks in 20 innings, and a 1.6 G/F ratio. Right-handers were more difficult to handle (3.58, 26 K in 37 2/3 IP, 14 BB and a 0.7 G/F). Those numbers are still solid, but he's potentially dominant against same-handed batters in the majors.
The lack of a minor-league splits database at the time kept the sample from being any larger, but it's clear Luebke has kept right on destroying every lefty he sees at the plate. According to the reborn Minor League Splits database, courtesy of Driveline Baseball, we see that Luebke had a 2.95 FIP against lefties in Triple-A last year, and was at 2.67 in High-A the year prior. This year, he has a 1.75 FIP, the second-best behind Craig Kimbrel, minimum 30 innings pitched against them.
The Padres' minor-league system looked like it was bereft of any real help at Triple-A this year, but Luebke has done his best to fix that issue. He now looks like a legitimate starter to slot in with Mat Latos and Tim Stauffer, giving the Padres the makings of a high-quality rotation in 2012. That's a long way from where he was just a year ago, but, for once, a Padres' prospect developed into something better than expected, rather than something worse.