SAN ANTONIO — Despite being nearly 6-foot-5, a sturdy 210 pounds, left-handed and possessing the ability to throw a baseball consistently at 90 miles an hour or more, Joey Lucchesi, who statistically has been the top Padres’ pitcher in the minor leagues this year, went undrafted in 2015.
“My junior year I was hoping to get drafted and it just didn’t work out,” said Lucchesi last year when he was with the Tri-City Dust Devils, where he struck out 53 in 40 innings against only two walks.
“I was talking to the Dodgers and they said they were going to pick me and when it didn’t happen, it was tough.”
“I told myself that I just had to keep working hard and everything happens for a reason. I got stronger, worked on my pitching skills and had a good year.”
In having a “good year” Lucchesi led all of Division 1 college baseball as a senior for the Southeast Missouri Redhawks. He whiffed 149 hitters against 37 walks in 111 innings, and posted a 2.19 ERA. It was ten walks fewer than he issued the year before despite throwing an additional 23 innings.
After that success, the Padres took Joey in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, an event that Lucchesi said caused “everyone to go crazy” in his house and sent him off to Eastern Washington for his pro debut.
“His strikeout-to-walk ratio was unlike anything I have ever seen,” said Chris King, the Dust Devils play-by-play announcer. “He has a funky delivery but he was polished and was just as good as any pitcher who threw in the Northwest League.”
Lucchesi’s fastball usually sits in the 90-93 MPH range and can touch 95, but the key to his success has been the movement on his two-seam fastballs, (he throws two types, which each breaking in a different direction) his ability to disrupt a batter’s timing with all of the different tics in his delivery, (think Hideo Nomo, only a lot taller) and as his manager with the Dust Devils Ben Fritz said last season, “batters just can’t pick up the ball.”
He also throws a circle change and a curve ball, which he has credited with much of his success this season.
“The curve is where I want it right now,” said Lucchesi who in Spring Training said it was a focal point of what he was hoping to improve upon from last year. “I can throw it for strikes when I want to and outside of the zone on an 0-2 count to get batters to chase.”
Because he was relatively “old” for the leagues he was in last year, the Padres have been relatively aggressive in promoting Lucchesi, now 24, upward. So far, he has not disappointed.
He began the year in High-A Lake Elsinore where, in 14 starts, he posted 2.52 ERA in the notorious hitter- friendly California League with 95 strikeouts against 19 walks in 78.2 innings.
“The margin for error is a little bit smaller here [Double-A San Antonio] than it was in Tri-City or in Lake Elsinore. “If you are up, you are getting hit. You have to hit your spots, your corners and most importantly make your pitch.”
“It’s tough, but at the same time it’s getting me closer to where I want to be.”
In late June, the Padres promoted Lucchesi to Double-A San Antonio, nearly a year to the date after his professional debut with the Dust Devils. In nine starts with the Missions, and one game in relief where he was the second starter (“piggyback”) with Jacob Nix, he has a 1.79 ERA in 60.1 innings. More importantly, he has consistently shown improvement from start-to-start with the Missions.
“He showed up here like most kids from A-ball with some things he had to correct, and he’s been a good student and has done everything we have asked,” said Missions manager Phillip Wellman.
“He’s much better at controlling the running game and making a few other adjustments. Everything that we have addressed, he has corrected and that is impressive.
“He really competes.”
Lucchesi has been part of the big three college pitchers taken in the 2016 draft by San Diego alongside right-hander Cal Quantrill and left-hander Eric Lauer, both of whom were drafted in the first round and have pitched with him at Lake Elsinore and San Antonio. But so far, he has outperformed both in nearly every pitching category, including innings pitched and ERA.
“I think at this exact moment, Joey is a little ahead of both,” said Mike Saeger, the Missions’ play-by-play announcer when asked how he would compare the three. “He has pretty good command of his pitches and Joey can really spin a baseball.”
John Conniff is a contributor to FoxSportsSan Diego and you can follow him @madfriars.com.