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ADPuzzles: Cory Luebke

Where would you anticipate a pitcher with a 1.07 WHIP, a 3.29 ERA, and a 9.92 K/9 would be getting drafted? To put those numbers in perspective, his WHIP would have been 11th best among starters, his ERA would have been in the top 30, and his K/9 would have been 3rd best in baseball, provided he had qualified for the ERA title, which he did not. While Cory Luebke’s numbers put him as one of the 20 best starters in baseball, his ADP of 138 very clearly does not. According to Mock Draft Central, Luebke is being drafted anywhere from 94th to 216th in mixed leagues, commonly landing between Anibal Sanchez and Tim Hudson.

Luebke’s upside is pretty obvious from his numbers. He strikes out a very high percentage of the hitters he faces, he doesn’t walk that many hitters, and while he isn’t a groundball pitcher, he plays in PETCO Park, so it matters far less than it would in other home parks. His fastball and slider both graded out as plus pitches last season, neither his FIP nor xFIP suggest that his success was the product of unrepeatable factors. His BABIP is low, but .276 as a starter isn’t out of line with his situation: he’s a flyball pitcher in a pitcher’s park with a strong outfield defense behind him, call it good luck if you must, but there’s a good chance all those same factors produce a relatively low BABIP again in 2012.

Two things do make me a little nervous. First, he had a huge innings jump* from 2010 to 2011, well over 100 innings in fact. That he didn’t spend much time as a reliever in the majors assuages some of the fear here, as does the fact that he was almost exclusively a starter in the minors. Yes, he still bore a heavier load  in 2011 than he had in previous seasons, but he wasn’t also trying to adjust to a totally new work schedule as he was doing it. I think it’s reasonable to say that he might fatigue more quickly in 2012 as he adjusts to a full season as a major league starter than he will in the future. With that fatigue comes an increased injury risk, so that’s a somewhat unwelcome addition to his profile. That is not, however, my biggest concern with Luebke.

The word that keeps popping up in every conversation I have about Luebke is exposure. Assuming he doesn’t get sent down to the minors, and there’s no reason he should, 2012 will be the first time that Luebke spends all year at a single level. The closest thing he’s had to a full year at one level was when he made 15 starts in High-A to end 2008 and 14 starts in High-A to begin 2009, but even then, many the players around him and facing him had changed. If he makes close to 30 starts in 2012, he’ll face the rest of the NL West 3-4 times at minimum, meaning those hitters will have ample time to figure him out. Whatever benefit he derived from the element of surprise in 2011 will be almost totally gone by June of 2012 if it even hangs on that long.

Fortunately, Luebke isn’t relying on a quirky motion to get hitters out — he’s not Byung-Hyun Kim or Chad Bradford — so I don’t think the fact that hitters will have seen him before is the difference between his 2011 numbers and a 5.79 ERA with a 1.58 WHIP. That said, irrespective of his more traditional delivery, I do think the fact that hitters won’t be facing him for the first or second time will lead to some level of regression.

I like Luebke a lot. I like his short, quick delivery, I like his ability to locate his fastball, and I really like the fact that his peripherals seem to support the success he had last year. Yes, there are a few things that scare me about him: an increased injury risk, overexposure to NL hitters, Carlos Quentin being his right fielder, etc, but I really do believe in his talent and if you can get him anywhere near his current ADP, do it.

For keeper players, I would take Luebke even higher than I would take him in redraft. Yes, he’ll be 27 when the season starts, but he’s playing in PETCO for the foreseeable future and it’s not like he’s in his 30s already; he may not be Matt Moore, but he’s not Livan Hernandez either. If the innings do start to take a toll on him, I think it’ll largely be limited to one year and that he’ll be better for it in 2013 and 2014, which cuts out some of the risk in his profile when you look at long-term returns. For redraft players, he’s still a great value where he’s being picked now, just know that if he fades toward the end of the year, it shouldn’t come as a total surprise.

*I do briefly want to address something that comes up with some frequency when I talk about guys who have an innings jump. There are two camps on this; the first says that innings are innings and that minor league innings are more or less equivalent to major league innings. The other camp, and this is where I fall, believes that the difference between major and minor league innings is sizable — though there is dispute as to how minor league innings should be weighted.

So, if you fall into camp one, you probably don’t see the move from Luebke’s 132 combined innings in 2010 to his 140 major-league-only innings in 2011 as substantial. I tend to see that as a rather large increase, but your mileage may vary.