Lueke flashing dominant stuff

Right-hander Josh Lueke has always possessed a plus fastball, but his secondary stuff is helping him take the next step toward becoming a strong late-inning relief prospect. Lone Star Dugout caught up with the pitcher, who has fanned 25 in 13 innings this season.

For the time being, Josh Lueke is a 25-year-old pitcher in Low-A ball. He's doing what an older pitcher at the lower lever should be doing––dominating.

But the difference is that Lueke is doing it with legitimately dominant stuff that will play at any level as long as he continues to refine and command it.

Lueke impressed with excellent results during Spring Training, and he is continuing to do the same during the regular season.

Working as the closer at Single-A Hickory, the right-hander has a 0.00 earned-run average and eight saves in 12 appearances this season. Over 13 innings, he has surrendered eight hits while walking four and striking out an incredible 25 batters.

The Kentucky native comes at hitters with a three-pitch power arsenal that includes a low-to-mid-90s fastball that generally sits between 93-95 mph, a hard slider, and a split-changeup.

Ever since the Lueke was drafted in the 16th round of the 2007 MLB Draft, the Rangers have known about his promising arm. Lueke has reached the mid-90s in the past, but his developing secondary stuff is leading to his breakout as a prospect.

As the 6-foot-5 hurler explains below, he changed the grip on his slider this spring, helping make it harder and sharper. Lueke's slider now often works in the mid-80s––around 84-85 mph––and it is a sharper, better swing-and-miss pitch than it had been in the past.

His split-changeup, which he learned from Brennan Garr, has also helped him find success against southpaws this season. Of the 24 left-handed hitters that have stepped in the box against Lueke, three have gotten hits, one has walked, and 12 have struck out.

Because of Lueke's involvement in a legal issue in Bakersfield last year, he won't be returning to the Blaze, and that is why he's currently in Hickory despite the advanced age.

When the prospect eventually receives his promotion––which can't be too far ahead––he will almost certainly be promoted to Double-A Frisco. The Texas League figures to be a big test for Lueke, but he has the stuff necessary to excel.

Jason Cole: I want to go back to your Spring Training. How did you feel you threw the ball in camp this year?

Josh Lueke: Well, I came in and the first day I got to Spring Training, I went to talk to Scott Servais, and he basically told me straight up that I was competing for a Double-A job, but that I was going to have to pitch well.

The whole spring felt good––I was getting ground balls and working on picking up the velo on my slider. I wanted to get some more depth on the slider, and I wanted to throw the splitter to both sides of the plate to lefties and righties. It seemed that everything started to finally click.

Cole: Yeah, this spring you were consistently throwing your slider around the mid-80s. What did you do to get it to that point?

Lueke: Basically, just lots of throwing it. But I had a meeting with Terry Clark, Danny Clark and all the pitching coaches. Terry Clark basically came in and told me how he threw his slider once he got into pro ball––he changed things up to pick up his velocity a little bit, and I kind of just played around with the grip a little bit. Sure enough, the velocity started increasing, it got a little sharper, and it took out that big bend.

Cole: How much better do you feel the new slider is compared to the one you were throwing in the past?

Lueke: It's a lot better. It's more of an out pitch or a swing-and-miss pitch now. It stays on the same plane as the fastball, whereas in the past, it was more loopy. It came out kind of like a curveball––it was just slow.

Cole: You also mentioned the splitter. How long have you had that in your arsenal?

Lueke: When I came into pro ball, I was like a fastball, slider, slurve guy. But then DC and Rick Adair––when he was there––they always tried to work with me on getting me a changeup. I could never get one.

Brennan Garr actually introduced me to that pitch he throws, because it's kind of a mix. It's a splitty where you are basically using your entire hand instead of just a regular split-fingered fastball. I just played around with it for awhile and it finally started working for me. It has been a pretty effective pitch since.

Cole: How do you feel the splitter is coming around this year, and how often are you throwing it in comparison to your other secondary pitch, the slider?

Lueke: To lefties, I throw it a lot more than I throw the slider. Just because I can make it break the other way. And to righties, I actually just started throwing it to them after Brad Holman told me to mix it in just give them a different look instead of just fastball-slider.

Cole: Obviously it's not much of a sample size, but a look at your numbers shows a much higher ground ball rate against lefties than righties. Is part of that from the drop you get on that splitter?

Lueke: Yeah, it dives pretty good. I basically throw it more to them than anything because I can control it better. A lot of times it breaks like fade––kind of like a changeup. It fades away versus just falling straight end-over-end. I'm working on making it just topple straight over so I can throw it both ways.

Cole: You've pitched really well statistically thus far. What are your thoughts on the 2010 season a little over a month into it?

Lueke: It's going well. Basically this offseason, I talked to my agent and my family and stuff. They basically just said you've got to go out there and you've got to compete. This has to be my year to do something, otherwise it might never happen.

I just really worked hard in the offseason to get prepared both mentally and physically. When I got to Spring Training, I was a lot more apt to compete––I came out ready to pitch the whole year, basically.

Cole: In your overall game, is there an area that you're really trying to improve right now?

Lueke: Yeah, I really need to improve on awareness––knowing where to go on certain situations in terms of backing the bases and stuff. Sometimes I get lackadaisical, I get behind, and I go to the wrong place or something. I end up not being where I'm supposed to be.

And understanding hitters better––to where I can find holes in swings. Also paying attention to how they go through a game, so if I do have a chance to pitch, I know where their weaknesses are when I get in there.

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