MLB.com Columnist

Mike Petriello

Lugo brings elite spin into Classic finale vs. USA

Mets righty's average curve spin of 3,318 rpm leads Majors

Lugo brings elite spin into Classic finale vs. USA

Tonight, Seth Lugo will lead Team Puerto Rico in a rematch against Marcus Stroman and Team USA in the World Baseball Classic championship game (9 p.m. ET on MLB.TV and MLB Network).

In the first meeting -- a 6-5 Puerto Rico win on Friday -- Lugo held the stacked American lineup to three earned runs in 5 2/3 innings.

Because Lugo is not guaranteed a spot in the Mets' rotation, because he was a 34th-round pick out of tiny Centenary College in 2011, and because he never ranked highly on any prospect lists while putting up an ERA near six in Triple-A, you, by all rights, should not know his name.

But you do, don't you? You might because he came up to reinforce a battered Mets staff by offering a 2.67 ERA in 17 appearances (eight starts) last year, or you might have discovered him when he threw 5 1/3 scoreless innings in Puerto Rico's 11-0 win against Venezeula on March 9. But odds are you mostly know the name because he's the closest thing to being a Statcast™ breakout star in the two years of our new advanced player tracking system. What Giancarlo Stanton is to exit velocity and Billy Hamilton is to baserunning and highlight reel defensive plays, Lugo is to spin rate.

We knew this from the first moment Lugo stepped into the big leagues, when he made Anthony Rizzo look absolutely foolish late on a rainy night in Queens during his Major League debut, and it's a really good example of how we can use data to shine a spotlight on players you wouldn't have thought of and tell their stories in interesting ways.

Lugo curve

So what exactly does Lugo do so well? And what does spin mean, really? Here's your official Lugo Cheat Sheet to keep handy as he takes the field in front of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez and the rest of the Puerto Rican team in San Diego.

Lugo owns all the curveball spin records
Lugo doesn't just have the highest average curveball spin by a hair, he's got it by a lot. Over the two seasons of Statcast™, 307 pitchers have thrown at least 100 curveballs. We already gave away that he's No. 1 on this list, but check out the gap between him and the second-place pitcher.

3,318 rpm -- Lugo, Mets
3,100 rpm -- Garrett Richards, Angels
3,000 rpm -- Jesse Hahn, A's
2,970 rpm -- Charlie Morton, Pirates (now with Astros)
2,953 rpm -- Scott Oberg, Rockies
Major League average -- 2,386 rpm

You don't get to be ranked that highly on the list if you don't have a ton of high-spin curves, and indeed Lugo does. Of the 200 highest-spin curveballs tracked by Statcast™ over the past two seasons, he owns 104 of them -- and remember, he didn't pitch in the Majors at all in 2015, and threw just 64 innings in 2016. Lugo has been a big leaguer for something like a quarter of the past two years, yet he owns half of the Top 200 spin curves.

That includes the highest-spin curveball ever tracked, this nasty pitch that Miami's Xavier Scruggs swung right through back in August:

Seth Lugo K

Lugo has three of the top five, with Richards owning the other two. Richards, you might remember, was the name that stuck out back in 2015 when we were all just learning about spin tracking. Now, Lugo is the name to know.

But OK, Lugo has got great spin. So what? Why does it matter?

How spin affects outcomes
High spin, by itself, does not guarantee that a pitcher will be successful. While studs like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer have very high fastball spin, the highest fastball spin from last year was from reliever Andrew Bailey... who was released by the Phillies before catching on with the Angels. Think of it like having high velocity -- it's a very good tool to have, it's just not going to win you Cy Young Awards on its own.

Still, high spin in the right direction can make a ball do some very interesting things, and when you look at the 2016 Major League outcomes against curveballs in various spin buckets, you can see how different the effects can be. Remember, the Statcast-era average was 2,386 rpm.

3,000+ rpm
.174 avg / .254 SLG / 38% whiff percentage

2,400-2,999 rpm
.203 avg / .316 SLG / 32% whiff percentage

1,800-2,399 rpm
.230 avg / .369 SLG / 12% whiff percentage

While we reiterate that you need more than good spin to succeed, it's pretty clear to see that higher spin curves are, on average, more difficult to make contact with and turn into hits.

Lugo, for what's it worth, actually used his four-seam, sinker and slider more often than his curve, which he threw only 16 percent of the time. But his curve was by far his best strikeout pitch, generating a 35-percent whiff rate.

Good luck, or good pitching?
What's truly scary (for opposing hitters, anyway), is that Lugo told local media in January that "last year was one of my worst years with [the curveball]," which, given all the data we've provided, sounds impossible.

That said, not everything about Lugo's otherwise impressive rookie season shouted "future star." While the 2.67 ERA was indeed nice, his strikeout rate (17 percent, 6.3 per nine) was below-average, and his .230 Batting Average on Balls in Play was one of the lowest in baseball, which suggests that some amount of good fortune helped him out.

Earlier this month, we introduced "Hit Probability" from the Statcast™ lab, a new metric that takes quality of contact based on exit velocity and launch angle to put a defense-free likelihood of success on each batted ball. (That is, if Mike Trout hits a ball at 112 mph and 14 degrees, he's hit a ball that is a hit 77 percent of the time -- regardless of whether the opposing fielder makes a great play, or falls over, or was positioned well or poorly, all things completely outside his control.) It gets to skill, rather than outcome, since other players are involved in outcome.

When you know the estimated outcome of each batted ball, you can accumulate it into a season-long measure that compares a hitter or pitcher's actual OPS against their estimated OPS, with strikeouts and walks included. As we described here, that shows not just that Clayton Kershaw was great (unsurprising), but that Kyle Hendricks was an elite pitcher even without the benefit of that amazing Cubs defense, based entirely on his skill at inducing the weakest contact.

Back to Lugo, we looked at 501 pitchers who faced 100 batters last year. There wasn't a single pitcher in baseball who had a larger difference between what did happen (.666 OPS) and what was estimated to happen (.840 OPS). That doesn't mean Lugo can't or won't be successful; it just means that the 2.67 ERA we saw last year may not be the "real" Lugo.

Of course, a lot more of that high-spin curveball could change the stakes considerably, especially if Lugo really thinks it can somehow be better.

The World Baseball Classic ends tonight. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games in San Diego's Petco Park and the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.