SAN DIEGO — Joey Lucchesi was the opening day starter in Lake Elsinore a season ago, thrust into that assignment after top prospect Anderson Espinoza went down with an injury. A year later, Lucchesi capped off a meteoric rise through the Padres’ system by making his Major League debut last Friday at Petco Park against the Milwaukee Brewers.
The 24-year-old southpaw doesn’t have the same pedigree as many of the other top prospects in the system. The lefty with the funky delivery signed a below-slot deal when the Padres selected him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. Lucchesi was a senior signee, after going undrafted as a junior.
While he wasn’t on national watch lists going into his senior year, Padres area scout Troy Hoerner, who had just joined the organization from the Houston Astros, had a bit of history with him.
“I saw him as a junior and I actually took another pitcher [Alex Winkleman] out of the same school in 2015. His stuff wasn’t as strong or as firm as it now. I also wasn’t sure about the funky delivery.”
Lucchesi was fantastic in his first full professional season, ultimately winning the Padres Minor League Pitcher of the Year as well as our award for pitcher of the year. He won 11 games and pitched to a sparkling 2.20 ERA, splitting time between Lake Elsinore and San Antonio.
The breakout season put Lucchesi in the mix as a dark-horse candidate for the Padres’ rotation coming into spring training, although an assignment to Triple-A El Paso seemed most likely. Lucchesi’s spring performance (1.54 ERA in 11.2 innings) gave him an opportunity to pitch in San Diego after Dinelson Lamet hit the disabled list with an elbow injury.
“I was really nervous at first, [it was] my first outing but I found a way to settle in and I was able to keep my team in the game, “ said Lucchesi, shortly after his big league debut.
A winding route to the Majors
The lefty from Newark, California has followed a path to the big leagues that is much like his delivery, unorthodox.
Largely unnoticed out of high school, Lucchesi had a year off before pitching at Chabot (Junior) College for two seasons to earn an opportunity at Southeast Missouri State. He earned all-conference honors his junior season, but that wasn’t enough to build much interest from pro scouts.
“As a senior, he got stronger and the curveball got firmer,” said Hoerner. He pitched like a man and dominated. He was probably miffed at the industry for not being drafted. [Not being drafted] gave him another year to understand his delivery as well.”
In that senior year, Lucchesi led all Division I pitchers with 149 strikeouts in 111 innings and posted a 2.19 ERA to lead Southeast Missouri to an NCAA regionals appearance.
“Troy found me at SEMO. He is a real straight-forward guy, a real good guy and he told me what kind of talent I had and he told me if I kept performing, I might get drafted in June,” said Lucchesi. “I said ‘hey that’s what I want’ because I didn’t get drafted after my junior year. He saw me [my junior year] but it didn’t go my way.
My senior year, I really performed, he saw, turned me in and I got drafted,” said Lucchesi.
Lucchesi’s big league debut was a bit uneven. His command, especially of his fastball was spotty and he missed numerous times up in the zone. Lucchesi battled, pitched around some hard contact and gutted out 4.2 innings before being removed after a Cory Spangenberg error that could have ended the inning.
“He has better stuff,” said Hoerner, who was able to be in attendance for Lucchesi’s debut. “He really battled without his stuff. For him not to get overwhelmed was one of the best things that could have happened to him. It’s going to be interesting to watch.
“He was good. Joey battled. [He] wasn’t his sharpest. I’ve seen his change get beneath the zone more and he has gotten chase’s on that in the past [but] it wasn’t really doing that today — it was more up in the zone,” said Padres manager Andy Green. The first inning his fastball was leaking back but as the game went on, I think he settled in pretty nicely.”
Lucchesi only managed one strikeout in his maiden voyage — whiffing former National League MVP Ryan Braun with a fastball on the inner half of the zone.
His fastball touched 92 mph but sat 90 mph, down a tick from where it normally is. Lucchesi was not overly concerned about the reduced velocity. In the middle innings, he started to mix in his changeup more and that is when he seemed to be most effective.
“I started mixing it up more. They saw me one time through, so I had to switch it up.”
While his big league debut wasn’t as pristine as he would have liked, Lucchesi vows to better the next time he steps on the mound.
“I wasn’t feeling myself. When I am feeling myself, I will be relaxed and loose. I was tensed up today but I was just trying to give my team a chance to win. I was slowing down then rushing myself. I got it next time.”