Luis Lugo stands 6’5” 200 lbs., an imposing figure on the mound. Ranked as the Indians #21 prospect by Baseball America, the young left-hander from Venezuela, who turned 21 just before the start of the season, has made significant gains in his proficiency on the mound this year.
The 2015 season is Lugo’s fifth in the Cleveland farm system. His offerings include a fastball clocked in the low 90’s, a change-up, a sweeping curveball, and a hard slider that was added to his repertoire late in the 2014 season.
Where he has really made gains this year is in his consistency.
“He’s starting to mature, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally.” said High Class-A Lynchburg pitching coach Rigo Beltran, a former Major League pitcher himself.
Beltran joined the team at mid-season, when previous pitching Coach Tony Arnold was moved up to AAA Columbus to replace the Clippers pitching Coach Carl Willis who had been hired by the Boston Red Sox.
Beltran had worked with Lugo last season at Low-A Lake County and the reunion seems to have produced additional gains by Lugo over the course of the season’s second half.
Lugo’s success on the mound stems from locating his fastball down in the zone and the development of consistency in his secondary pitches to keep hitters off balance.
His seasonal stats may not be attention grabbing, but in his four starts in August he has pitched at least five innings, with three of the four outings producing a quality start. In that stretch he has struck out eighteen opposing hitters, walked four, allowed eighteen base hits and only six runs for a 2.24 ERA. His improved work ethic has clearly begun to pay off.
“I’ve made some good strides on my slider which I started throwing last year,” said Lugo in talking about what he throws and what gains he has made this season, “It’s coming along really good now, I’m throwing it more consistently around the zone.”
With his size, consistency in motion and release point can make all the difference in being successful.
“My all-time favorite is Randy Johnson.” said Lugo about the recent Hall-of-Fame inductee. “His outstanding fastball, a really big guy who threw hard.”
Much like Johnson’s early career struggles with consistency because of his size Lugo has realized that baseball is not easy and that it takes hard work to develop the consistency in your motion, where players such as Randy Johnson made it look easy.
His improvements are part of a team effort where the starting staff have developed a strong bond and serve as unofficial coaches to each other during games.
Speaking about the camaraderie amongst the starters on the team, Lugo says “We see each other for six months straight and we can help each other out. If I have a rough inning another one of us says I thought you could do this, or you should have tried that pitch. We’ve been really helpful [to each other] all the way around.”
One of the unusual things about Lugo’s pitching is his batting average splits for lefties versus righties. Typically, a left handed pitcher is expected to have more success against lefty hitters, and vice versa for a right handed pitcher. For Lugo, he has actually been more successful against right handed hitters, so one of his aims for this season has been to gain effectiveness against batters hitting from the left side.
When you look at his lefty / righty splits on the season you can see why this is a point of focus in the work he does with coach Beltran. In 22 starts this season he has a .268 average and 5.65 ERA against left handed batters, and a .265 average and a 3.84 ERA against right handers.
“Confidence.” he says when talking about his improvement against left handed hitters. “Just throwing my best ball. If they hit it, they hit it. Just not thinking about that, but focusing on the spot I want to throw the ball at.”
His most recent outing came in one of the many double headers produced from the frequent rains the Hillcats have experienced this season. He faced off against Frederick’s veteran starter Mikey O’Brien and had the misfortune of his mound opponent throwing a no-hitter at the Hillcats.
This did not get Lugo off his game.
“It’s a self-challenge. When I’m on the mound it’s like King-of-the-Hill. That’s what I think every time I go out there.”
Though he did not get a victory that evening, he was still successful in advancing his game and showing the development in his pitching that has come about this season.
“Judging from what he’s been doing in the season, and what he did in his last game, he really took the challenge of getting those lefties under control.” said coach Beltran. “Lefties went 0-11 off him last time out.”
“I’m just trying to get as many outs as possible, quick as I can,” says Lugo, “so the guys don’t get tired out on the field.”
As the Hillcats have surged on offense and the team has risen to the top of the Northern Division standings in the Carolina League, the pitching staff has also turned themselves around and performed as part of the team effort. This is especially true of the starters on the team.
As part of this teamwork Lugo has topped 100 strikeouts for the second straight season and with just over two weeks left to go in the minor league season he looks to finish strong as the Hillcats battle to maintain their lead in the second half and get an opportunity for post-season baseball.
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer