2 years ago

Life as a big leaguer entitles you to a great many things, but even those most fortunate to reach The Show can’t make miracles happen. So it goes for bourbon enthusiasts chasing after the rare and legendary bottles, the “unicorns.” List price on a bottle of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle is $299, but you’ll likely never see one in your life, unless you’re willing to pay thousands of dollars on the resale market. Even your favorite liquor store (the good one in town, the one with the guy who actually answers “Yes” when you ask if he has anything special in the back) has no clue if it will get any bottles in any given year. Most people who get their hands on the true unicorn bottles have won a lottery of some sort.

And … then what? Here’s a glass bottle of liquid rarer than good sense, but the very nature of a consumable means that each sip leaves less and less for next time. It’s tempting, then, to wait for the right moment, the special occasion worthy of the bottle. Life, though, is rarely so linear. What occasion is worthy of indulging in an irreplaceable commodity?

Not every bottle of bourbon demands such devotion and pursuit, but even the most pedestrian offering has aged in a charred oak barrel for at least six years or so. The process takes a liquid that’s as clear as vodka and harsher than a Mexican heat wave and cools it down, imparting complex flavors from the sugars in the wood. What comes out — whether six years, or 10, or sometimes even a couple decades later — is mellow and rich, with sophisticated and layered nuances that tingle the senses and send you reeling in search of another sip.

Naturally, the whole process makes you think about Yankees reliever Lucas Luetge.

Luetge arrived in Yankees camp before the 2021 season as a curiosity, a left-handed reliever who hadn’t appeared on a Major League mound since 2015. After an impressive spring, the Texas native made the Opening Day roster, then became one of the stalwarts of a bullpen that carried the Yankees to the postseason. He says that he knew he had it in him. But he’s also self-aware enough to note that anyone who bet on him to make the team last year could have been in for a payday much greater than his own big-league salary. “You could have won millions of dollars,” jokes the pitcher who entered his second Yankees season with far fewer question marks. “It wasn’t supposed to happen.”

As for why it did, there are plenty of reasons. There’s the cutter that developed into what coaches call a “glitch pitch” and that his catcher struggles to define as anything other than “strange” and “unique.” There’s the fact that the cutter is kind of a slider, but kind of not, but don’t worry, because Luetge also now throws a wickedly devastating actual slider. There’s the maturity that you get from chasing a lifelong dream, then being forced to wait for a chance to chase it again.

But as Luetge has proven, there’s also the paradox of the unicorn bourbon bottle: Sometimes, you have to create your own moment.

As he sits in front of his locker at George M. Steinbrenner Field during the final full week of this year’s shortened spring training, Luetge is situated along the wall with the team’s stud relievers. Look one way and you’ll find Zack Britton. Chad Green is on the other side, with Clay Holmes a few stalls down, and the row continues its way toward Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Loáisiga. It’s a wall of proven big leaguers, with the Minor League arms stuck either on the row nearest the bathroom or in freestanding lockers planted in the middle of the room.

Last year, when he arrived at camp on Feb. 17 as a non-roster invite, it had been 2,125 days since Luetge last pitched in a Major League game, and there was precious little reason to think that was going to change as the pitcher in his mid-30s dressed at his locker surrounded by the youngest prospects in camp. General manager Brian Cashman had been encouraged to take a chance based on reports from Matt Daley, the Yankees’ director of pro scouting, and assistant general manager and analytics guru Michael Fishman. “They thought there was an upside play there,” Cashman says. “And it was just about, if we can get him into our camp, to agree to come in here as a non-roster invite, we’d certainly give him that opportunity. He obviously seized it.”

That’s something of an understatement. Luetge appeared in nine games in the spring of 2021, allowing eight hits in 101/3 innings. He struck out 18 batters, walked two and allowed just a pair of earned runs. When the team headed north, Luetge barely let up. By year’s end, he had thrown 721/3 innings in 57 games, with a 5.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio that was nearly three and a half times better than his career average from 2012 to ’15.

Luetge had come out of the ether to become one of the most valuable relievers in the league, recording a 1.4 bWAR.

“I had never even heard of him before he came to us in spring training last year,” says catcher Kyle Higashioka, whose Major League debut came in 2017. “I started seeing him pitch, and I’m like, ‘Man, this guy’s really good! This guy has 1-2-3 innings every single time he goes out.’”

The reality of what was to come was impossible to imagine, though, as Luetge worked on the Tampa mounds last spring. He was a guy who had pitched in 111 big-league games, but none in nearly six years, and over that time, he had learned about life and loss, come to understand who he was and what was important. “I’ve been in the big leagues,” he told himself. “And I knew I was a big leaguer. It was just, the pieces need to fall in the right place. Even if I’m in the Minor Leagues, if I was going to Scranton, I would still tell myself every day, ‘I’m a Major Leaguer, they just got it wrong.’”

Luetge took on the tasks that were asked of him, hoping that the Yankees would be the team that recognized what had eluded so many others over the years. There had been your typical bad luck of roster crunches, as well as a Tommy John surgery that might have been almost welcome because at least it was a concise and understandable explanation both for why he wasn’t rostered in the short term, and for why he couldn’t pitch as effectively as he had wanted. But he knew he had the stuff to be a big leaguer, and he believed he would prove it again.

Before the Yankees could trust him, though, he had to trust them. Standing on the mound last spring, Luetge was a bit concerned that he was relying too much on his secondary pitches. He was getting good results, but as Opening Day neared, he wondered if he was spending enough time honing his fastball. He mentioned it to Matt Blake, wondering if the Yankees’ pitching coach might agree. “What should I do?” Luetge asked Blake. “And he was like, ‘Well, try to make the team.’”

It wasn’t just tough love from the Yankees coaches, though. They sat Luetge down and showed him all the blue in his pitch charts. Fans examining pitchers in 2021 and 2022 have a wealth of statistical and analytical data that simply didn’t exist when Luetge last climbed a big-league mound in 2015 — think how quickly you can find information such as spin rate and break diagrams during tonight’s game — but the Yankees did have access to his Minor League pitch-level data and found some particularly revealing information in the batted ball outcomes he induced.

Put simply, opponents weren’t hitting Luetge hard. Rather, they were beating him by refusing to chase his pitches out of the zone, not believing that he was willing to throw a strike. “It was just a matter of getting him to buy into throwing the ball in the zone a little bit more,” Blake says now.

Luetge’s velocity maxes out at around 90 mph, but his pitches move like bumblebees. The cutter, in particular, benefits from a late break that can be devastating to a hitter tracking it straight for 50 of the 60 feet. Think back to Mariano Rivera, and the way he inexplicably missed bats and broke others while relying on one pitch. For years, fans would watch the ball dive out of the zone at the last second and scream, “Just don’t swing!” And, as Rivera constantly pointed out, he would be perfectly happy if batters wouldn’t swing, because he knew he could throw a strike whenever he wanted.

The last part is what Luetge was missing. He was trying to get Major League hitters to chase his movement by throwing pitches that never offered any menace. He didn’t have the confidence to throw strikes.

“At first I was a little questionable about that, people telling me to throw big-league hitters right down the middle,” Luetge says. “My pitches don’t end up down the middle, but in my mind, it’s going there. So, once they told me that, and I actually bought in and said, ‘Just throw strikes,’ a kind of magic happened.”

Luetge recalled conversations with an old teammate, Oliver Pérez, who had offered some unusual advice. Pérez told him to watch batting practice, when hitters face half-speed fastballs right down the middle. Even in those settings, Pérez said, they still hit plenty of balls that would be sure outs. “So, if your ball’s a lot faster and moving, they have a lot better chance to do that,” Pérez said. “Just throw strikes.”

Josh Donaldson, who faced Luetge last year as a member of the Twins, looks across the East River for a comp, noting the ways that the Mets’ twin aces can work in and out of the zone. The goal, he says, isn’t just to throw a pitch that has crazy movement. “If he’s not messing around and he’s attacking the strike zone, it puts the onus on the hitter to start swinging the bat,” Donaldson says. “The guys that are really good do that. You look at your Jacob deGroms, you look at Max Scherzer, you see guys that are able to get outs in the zone. And then when the time comes, to make it look like it’s in the zone and go out of the zone is very effective.”

And as for the results? From 2012 to 2015, Luetge averaged 4.8 walks per nine innings. In 2021? He got that number all the way down to 1.9. For all the data in the game today, for all the confusing equations that can thrill some fans while turning off others, it was pretty simple in Luetge’s case: He just stopped walking people.

The point of a Minor League ladder is to reach the top. No career is a straight climb, and most players bounce between the Majors and Triple-A at least a bit at the start. But the life is about working your way to the Majors and staying there, and as Holmes notes, it takes a special kind of person to push for six years to reach a dream he had already realized.

“Once you get the taste of it, it’s kind of the only baseball you want to play,” Holmes says. “You just want to be in the Major Leagues — I think anybody would agree with that. But once that doesn’t become your reality anymore, you have to learn how to think about baseball differently, or your environment differently, in order to put yourself in the best situation to perform. It can help or hurt people, having that taste, and I think Lucas was able to use it in a positive way to hold the hope of eventually getting back to it. But I’ve definitely seen many cases where it takes people down the other path, and they never get back.”

To Luetge, the motivation to return after so many years was about letting his kids see him play; he wants them to learn the lessons about not giving up, about using your gifts and making them work. He proudly jokes that he’s the everyman in the “Pros versus Joes” archetype. But all he has to do is look around the GMS Field home clubhouse to see what his story means.

This spring, Manny Bañuelos — who pitched in the Yankees’ system from 2008 (as a 17-year-old) until 2014 — returned to the club as a non-roster invite. Bañuelos never developed into the star his prospect status indicated, and he has just 77 big-league innings to his name to go along with time spent pitching in Mexico and Taiwan. He was dressing right near the locker that Luetge had used in 2021, a point that wasn’t lost on some of the Yankees relievers as Bañuelos pitched himself into contention for a role with the 2022 club. “I was talking with [Jonathan] Loáisiga about it,” Bañuelos says, “and he said, ‘Hey, Lucas was in the same spot last year, and he made it.’”

Bañuelos once became a top prospect by relying on his high-90s fastball, but through arm injuries and age, he had to become a more versatile pitcher to keep the dream alive. That sort of adaptability is something Luetge knows plenty about. Trusting in the ability to keep your 88 mph fastball elevated and around the plate is, perhaps, an advantage meant for a guy whose steely nerve was built from moving back and forth from chartered planes and nights at the Ritz to bus rides and 3 a.m. flights. Luetge insists that he never bought into the big-league mentality in the same way that he never accepted the Minor League reality.

“I’ve never been that guy where I was just always successful; I failed a lot,” he says. “Getting sent down the first time was a punch in the stomach. But after that, it was just a challenge. Like, How do I get better to get back up? So, it was never a negative of, Oh, I don’t have the big-league lifestyle anymore. That’s great. But I don’t really live the big-league lifestyle. I’m a small-town guy. I don’t need much. I don’t buy things. That stuff’s cool, but it was never about that. It was more of me knowing where I should be.

“At this point in my career, I feel like I’m playing with house money. So, I just go out there and have fun.”

It’s funny to talk to Luetge about the Minor Leagues, because he refuses to accede to the negativity. It’s a nonstop bachelor party, he says of life on the farm, hanging around and playing baseball with a bunch of guys, traveling around the country. And maybe he really is just that centered. But he also knows the toll that his pursuit took on his wife, Lacie. He knows that in relying on her to do everything to keep the family afloat, to say nothing of serving as his travel agent and even, at times, his actual agent, he benefited from her discretion as much as her practical talents. “I know a lot of times, she was probably biting her tongue, not telling me, ‘It’s time to quit.’”

Other times, Lacie was right there with the exact words that her husband needed. After his exceptional 2021 spring gave him a ticket north with the club and a spot on the Opening Day roster, Luetge proceeded to give up runs in his first five outings. A bit mopey and feeling sorry for himself, a bit anxious over what he figured could be a trip back to the Minors, he complained that he wasn’t having any fun. “She was like, ‘What’s the worst that happens? They send you down? We’re back where we were? Just go have fun. Go have a beer. Relax. Just enjoy your time while you’re here because if it’s gone tomorrow, you’re going to regret that you weren’t having a good time at least.’ That’s what I did. I just started having fun, like whatever happens, happens.”

That’s the problem with the unicorn bottle: You can wait forever for the perfect moment, and while you’re holding out, anything can happen. Maybe your kid knocks it over, maybe your house catches on fire, maybe something even worse. You don’t need to wait for the right moment to pour yourself a glass from your best bottle; taking a sip can be what makes it a moment. 

Luetge turned things around after that fifth outing. He didn’t allow a run his next 14 times out, and when the season ended in Boston, he began a particularly strange offseason; one in which he had a role for the coming year. “I haven’t had that luxury ever, I don’t think, in baseball,” the pitcher says. The alien experience called for a slight change in tradition. Typically, when Luetge would sign a contract, he’d open the finest bourbon he had and pour himself a glass. This year, Lacie stepped in and bought a bottle of Saint Cloud — not a unicorn, but neither was it something anyone would ever complain about. It was a beautiful bottle, but also somehow less precious than in previous years, just as his status in the game was less precarious. 

Not that a bit of security — financial or otherwise — really changed much about Luetge’s outlook. He got to spend his offseason and his spring developing his repertoire, honing his new slider with the insane horizontal break, but he also knew that if he gave up a run, he probably wasn’t staring at a trip to Scranton. 

“I try not to let it get to my head, because you can get comfortable up here,” Luetge says. “And once you get comfortable, usually it gets taken away from you.”

Luetge knows that better than almost any big leaguer. He’s a decade older than Gleyber Torres, but with less MLB service time to his name. Bullpen coach Mike Harkey chuckles at the idea of discussing a 35-year-old’s “development,” but he also sees a pitcher who seized his opportunity while using the time to find something new and unexpected. 

That was on display during this season’s first week, in Luetge’s second outing. He entered in the seventh inning against Boston and threw two cutters to Jonathan Arauz, inducing a soft pop out on the second. Then two more cutters to Enrique Hernandez led to a flyout to left, which brought up left-handed stud Rafael Devers

Devers looked at a cutter for ball 1, then offered an awkward half-swing at the 1-0 cutter that started dead center and drifted away. A third cutter — the seventh straight that Luetge had thrown in the inning, none exceeding 88 mph — sailed outside for ball 2. Then Luetge went to the slider he had been perfecting over the offseason. Starting almost behind Devers’ head, the pitch caused the hitter to buckle away from the strike zone and limbo backwards in terror before it nicked the top of the zone for strike 2. The pitch had 24 inches of horizontal break, 14 more than the average slider, and Devers could only chuckle as he composed himself before stepping back into the box. 

The next pitch … well, it didn’t require any true genius to guess what would be coming. Luetge threw another slider, this one starting in the lower-right quadrant of the strike zone before bouncing into catcher Jose Trevino’s glove. Devers swung helplessly. 

Watching the at-bat — indeed, the entire nine-pitch inning, to say nothing of Luetge’s previous 58 appearances with the Yankees — it was hard to imagine this guy being out of the Majors for six years. But like the clear and harsh sour mash that will years later become mahogany and caramelly bourbon, some of the best things in the world just need time in the barrel.