Cory Luebke is a pitcher. Maybe you've heard of him. He's a pitcher for San Diego. If you have heard of him, maybe you know a lot about him. More likely, you don't know a lot about him, if you have heard of him at all. There's no shame in that, by the way. I'm a professional baseball writer and until I'd just clicked a few links on Baseball-Reference I'd never heard of James Russell. James Russell appeared in 121 games for the Cubs the last two years. We all have our blind spots.
Luebke has been a relief pitcher for the Padres. He has also been a starting pitcher for the Padres. Last season with the Padres, Luebke started 17 games. His performance in those starts is kind of the whole reason I'm writing this article. I wouldn't be writing this article if Luebke's performance in those starts was unremarkable. Luebke's performance in those starts was incredibly remarkable.
Quick background: Luebke came into the season as a 26-year-old southpaw with four games of big league experience. It wouldn't be fair to say he was a non-prospect, but he wasn't a great prospect. John Sickels gave him a B- and ranked him sixth in the system. He was someone who could be a future contributor, but he was also someone highly unlikely to be a future star.
For a while, Luebke worked, and worked well, out of the Padres' bullpen. He made his first start on June 26, against the Braves. He would make 16 more starts the rest of the way. Here's one way of looking at how he did.
- He posted a lower ERA than Matt Garza
- He posted a lower FIP than Tim Lincecum
- He posted a lower xFIP than Felix Hernandez
- He posted a higher strikeout rate than Brandon Morrow
- He posted a lower walk rate than Justin Masterson
Here's another way of looking at how he did. This is a similar way, but my preferred way in this instance.
Forgive me for using this hackneyed technique. But as long as I'm using it, one of these pitchers is 2011 National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. One of these pitchers is 2011 American League Cy Young Award winner and 2011 American League Most Valuable Player Justin Verlander. And one of these pitchers is 2011 Cory Luebke as a starter. Which pitcher is which? Exactly!
I'm not trying to make the point that Cory Luebke is as good as Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander, or that Cory Luebke was as good as Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander. Kershaw and Verlander averaged more than seven innings a start last season, while Luebke averaged just under six. That's significant, and of course, Kershaw and Verlander have built more of a track record. But the fact that the performances are even in any way comparable...Cory Luebke. Who the hell is Cory Luebke? A guy who pitched like a got-danged ace is who.
One's instinct is not to trust a pitcher who spends half his time in Petco Park. That's certainly fair. Petco Park provides a healthy boost to a pitcher's statistics. But last year, Luebke actually put up better numbers on the road, if you can believe it. He wasn't a mirage. Cory Luebke earned his performance, and his performance was outstanding.
Will he remain that outstanding going forward? For a few reasons, we should think not. Players who perform at an extreme one year tend to regress a little the next. Additionally, Luebke doesn't have an established history of missing bats the way he did in 2011. Throughout the minors, he struck out 20.4 percent of the batters he faced. That's more in line with Luebke's repertoire, which is good but not overpowering.
At the same time, we can't just toss out Luebke's most recent numbers, as they've become part of the picture. The most important part of the picture, at that. At the highest level of competition, Cory Luebke pitched like an ace over the equivalent of half a season, and that's not really something you can fake. It's possible that Luebke's command has improved to the point where this is who he is now.
If Cory Luebke is this good, or even anywhere close to this good, that's amazing, because a year ago he was barely on the team's radar. You better believe he's on the team's radar now. And he ought to be on yours.