My immediate reaction was, "Wait, who is Cory Luebke?" I know that Luebke is a pitcher on the Padres, but there was nothing that made me think, "Yeah, Pineda is solid, but my goodness, I can get a $1 Cory Luebke?!"
Sure enough, Luebke's raw numbers are fantastic this year - 2.91 ERA (with a 2.98 xFIP to match), over 9.5 K/9, under 2.5 BB/9. Sure his BABIP (.254) and LOB (71.9%) are a bit low but a K:BB ratio of nearly 4:1 will make you feel much better about that.
But there are a couple concerns I see immediately: 1) Luebke's minor league numbers leave no suggestion that anything like this is possible and 2) those numbers are not purely starter numbers - he made 29 relief appearances this year as well. Is Luebke a a one-year phenomenon, a great reliever but only decent SP, a top-of-the-rotation kind of guy? And is he arguably the other owner's most valuable keeper?
Let's start with the relief vs. starter numbers. Luebke started the year as a reliever before being moved to the rotation back in June, and he was a very effective reliever - 2.96 xFIP, 9.92 K/9, 3.46 BB/9 as a relief pitcher. Moving to the rotation should force him to back off a little - he needed to mix in more pitches, he would have to pace himself, he would face guys 2-4 times a game instead of once. Clearly, his numbers would have to take a fall.
Well, 11 starts later, the opposite has happened. His BB/9 has improved to just 1.90 BB/9. His xFIP has barely faltered, rising to just 2.98. His K-rate has been the biggest drop off, falling all the way to a Lincecumian 9.36 - placing him 8th among qualified starters this year. His 4.93 K/BB ratio as a starter ranks 4th, with only Halladay, Haren and Greinke above him.
Looking closer at his pitches, it isn't surprising that the fall has been so limited (if you can call it a fall at all). As a RP, Luebke relied on a fastball and slider, with the fastball about 25 runs above league average and the slider around 6 above. As a point of comparison, Roy Halladay's best pitch is his cutter, which is about 18 runs above average this year, followed by his curve which clocks in around 13 and his splitter, which is just over 9. Luebke threw the four-seam fastball 56% of the time and the slider 34% of the time out of the pen. He also mixed in the occasional change (6.8%) and two-seamer (2.5%).
When he came to the rotation, you would expect Luebke to mix in his other pitches more, but the opposite happened. The four-seam fastball jumped to almost 70% of his selection, at the expense of his slider, which he dropped to 23%. The change and two-seamer remained just over 7% combined.
Just as importantly, his velocity hasn't taken a hit with the longer outings. As a RP, his fastball sat at 91.1; as a SP, it's at 91.5. His slider went from 82.7 to 83; the change from 83.2 to 84.8, and the two-seamer from 91.6 to 91.1. Basically, he is the same pitcher as a SP as he was in a relief role - same pitches, same velocities. He just uses his best pitch - the four-seamer - more often.
Having only made 11 starts, my next concern was that only really using two pitches as a starter will come back to bite him when a team sees him the second or third time. It certainly isn't definitive data, but on two separate occasions, he has made back-to-back starts against the same team. First, on July 7 and 16 he faced San Franciso, then on August 11 and 16 he faced the Mets. Here are the lines from those four starts:
7/7 6IP 2ER 8K 1BB 5H 1HR
7/16 7IP 2ER 5K 1BB 4H 1HR
8/11 5IP 2ER 8K 4BB 3H 0HR
8/16 6IP 1ER 5K 3BB 3H 0HR
And really...not much to see here. His K's dropped in each of the second starts, and for some reason the Mets draw endless walks against a guy who walks no one, but other than that - pure consistency.
So the transition to starter has gone a-ok, it seems. And there is nothing to suggest that it's a fluke, although there might be evidence for a drop in K-rate moving forward, as teams adjust. What about his minor league numbers?
Nothing in his track record suggests he had a top-of-the-rotation future. Kevin Goldstein ranked him #10 in the Padres system this year and said he's a "Fourth of fifth starter, but he's already there." Marc Hulet on FanGraphs was a bit more optimistic, ranking him #3 (although this was before the influx of Boston prospects in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez) and saying, "Luebke has the potential to be a solid No. 3 starter." Clearly neither saw this kind of a breakout.
And why should they? Luebke hasn't struck out over 9 per 9 IP since 2007 in A-ball (not counting 17.2 MLB innings in 2010). Since then his strike out rates have been mostly in the 6-7 range. Facing more advanced hitting in AA and AAA, Luebke posted solid FIPs (3.83 in AA in 2009, 2.84 in AA in 2010, and 3.91 in AAA in 2010), but nothing spectacular. His k-rates were very consistent - from 6.87 to 7.03 during those three stints in the high minors), but nothing like his MLB numbers. His walk rates were even better than they have been in the bigs, often under 2 per 9 and almost always under 3 per 9 throughout his minor league career.
Looking back, we see a decent prospect - an almost sure-thing ML starter but with a ceiling at #3 or lower and certainly no ace. Looking at 2011, we see an ace. But what about September and beyond?
As you would guess from his track record (and as hinted at by the second starts vs. NYM and SFG), ZiPS rest-of-season projection sees Luebke dropping his k-rate by a lot - all the way to 7.43, which is still pretty darn good. ZiPS also expects some normalization in his BABIP (up to .304), but even with these adjustments, the projected ROS FIP is 3.53 - not his sub-3.00 numbers so far, but still nothing to sneeze at.
My best guess is that, moving forward, that ZiPS projection is just about right on. He'll strike some guys out (although probably not at a top-ten rate moving forward), he'll keep his walks down (I actually think the 3.13 projected by ZiPS for the rest of the year may be high) and he will probably post ERA's above 3 but below 4 - and my guess is that with a little help from PETCO, it will be closer to 3 than 4.
So who is Cory Luebke? Well, he isn't the Cy Young candidate he has pitched like in these 11 starts, but he also isn't the back-of-the-rotation guy that most people projected. The Padres seem to have a #2 on their hands, and if you are considering him for fantasy, he is well-worth owning and keeping. His value will be hurt by a lack of wins with San Diego, but at $1 - I probably should grab him in this trade while I have the chance.