Jesús Luzardo Has Risen

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Three days ago, Jesús Luzardo was a fun bounceback candidate. As a minor leaguer, he was one of the best prospects in the game, with an explosive fastball, a spectacular array of secondaries, and plus command. In his first two seasons of big league experience, that continued; he missed bats, walked only 6.8% of his opponents, and posted an ERA in the upper threes. But in 2021, his command collapsed, and with it his untouchable status in Oakland. In the midst of a 6.61 ERA season with an 11% walk rate, the A’s shipped him off to Miami in exchange for Starling Marte.

It’s not three days ago anymore. Now, after a dominant start, I’m considering a different question: is Luzardo Miami’s best pitcher? Is he one of the best pitchers in baseball, full stop? That’s probably hyperbole, but again: Luzardo was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball only a handful of years ago. Let’s give his remarkable turnaround the consideration it deserves, and see if we can figure out what changes he’s made to unlock this new level of performance while we’re at it.

First things first: has Luzardo made any changes to his delivery? To figure this out with my remedial understanding of pitching mechanics, I watched one fastball from his 2021 season and one fastball from his 2022 debut over and over (and over and over and over) again. Here are the clips in question. First, a called strike last April:

Next, a foul tip from Tuesday:

I’m hardly an expert here, but I noticed several differences. First, he’s more to the third-base side of the rubber. Second, at the peak of his lead leg’s lift, his glove position is meaningfully higher. Take a look at the two side-by-side and it’s somewhat obvious, even if the different aspect angles from the two broadcasts keep you from making a straight comparison:

His body position has changed, too: he’s less upright and in what my untrained eye sees as a more athletic pose. It’s hard to read too much into anything else, thanks to the different camera angles, and here we have a tough break: Luzardo has only one game in a major league stadium in 2022, so we’re forced to use that one. You might think that’s no problem, given that he pitched in Anaheim, one of his old team’s divisional rivals, but he didn’t make a start in Angels Stadium last year, so we can’t match angles perfectly.

In either case, there’s at least one more change. His new follow-through is easier to see; he’s no longer pivoting his left leg across his body after completing the pitch. Instead, he’s landing it more or less straight down from where its natural post-delivery kick takes it. His lower body also looked changed during his delivery — his hips seem to rotate more suddenly and later in the progression — but I’m willing to believe I made that part up. In any case, the mechanical adjustments seem meaningful but not overwhelming; it’s not like we’re seeing a completely different pitcher out there.

The mysteries continue. Think of walk rate as some combination of first-pitch strike rate, chase rate, and zone rate. That’s not a perfect approximation, but those three things — getting into advantageous counts, turning pitches out of the zone into strikes, and throwing pitches that are never called balls — do a lot to explain walk rate. Here are Luzardo’s in 2021 and 2022:

New Look, Same Under the Hood
Year Chase% Zone% F-Strike% BB%
2021 31.0% 39.0% 58.4% 11.0%
2022 29.8% 38.2% 55.6% 5.6%

Not so different! In fact, I’m not convinced that Luzardo has meaningfully changed his command. He reached two 3–0 counts and a separate 3–1 count in his start. Heck, he easily could have ended up with two walks, which would have doubled his 5.6% walk rate:

So let’s not take a victory lap on his command of old returning. But that wasn’t the main development in this start, or even one of the top two. First, his velocity is up, higher than it’s ever been in his major league career. He averaged 98 mph on both of his fastball varieties; he’s been more 95–97 in his career before now. The slowest fastball he threw on Tuesday was 95.7 mph. That’s meaningful improvement; prior to 2022, a third of his fastballs clocked in below 95.

He used that fastball well to his glove side, peppering righties in and lefties away. That’s a completely new trend for him; in his career before this year, he located 23% of his fastballs on the gloveside edge, but this year, it’s 41.7%. It’s too early to tell whether this is a new plan or a one-game blip, but it seemed to help him find the plate while avoiding middle-middle cookies, so I’m into it.

The second development: his breaking ball might be unhittable. Luzardo’s best secondary has always been his slider, which might also be a curveball (pitch classification is hard). It’s a strange one, gyro-y and deceptively straight. It draws most of its movement from gravity and most of its deception from how different it looks from his fastball. Both of his fastballs have meaningful fade thanks to his three-quarters arm slot. If you’re expecting a foot of fade and the ball stays true, well, it sure sounds like movement to me.

It sure looked like movement to Angels hitters, who swung 13 times at the slider and came up empty on 12 of them. They took another nine for strikes, so utterly befuddled by the pitch that they just let it flutter by. And despite the low measurable movement, it looks like a big hook. Gravity and Luzardo’s arm angle combine for an aesthetically pleasing pitch:

On Tuesday, his command of the slider was also solid. He bounced a few, but they were mostly chase pitches. He has a fun wrinkle that accounted for some of those called strikes, too. Seemingly at random, he’ll flip in a quick pitch — a zero-leg-lift windup that takes batters out of their natural rhythm:

Luzardo will throw a few fastballs out of the quick pitch look to keep hitters honest — he threw Shohei Ohtani a quick-pitch fastball the pitch previous to the one I captured above — and he’s capable of bouncing it if necessary. I counted four quick-pitch sliders in the zone, two low, and two in-zone fastballs. The quick windup seemed to keep hitters off balance, and he didn’t suffer from obviously compromised command or velocity when using it. It’s a neat wrinkle, but definitely not enough to explain how helpless Angels hitters looked.

I liked Luzardo’s approach quite a bit. He was fastball-heavy early, attacking on the first two pitches of the at-bat and spinning sliders in behind them. If he fell behind in the count, he wasn’t afraid to throw either of his pitches in the zone. He had an idea of who to attack with breaking balls; Brandon Marsh saw seven in the eight pitches Luzardo threw to him. The second time through, he was cognizant of varying his looks against dangerous hitters, with Mike Trout, Ohtani, and Anthony Rendon each seeing a fastball to start their first time up and something slower to kick off their next time at bat.

When there was a runner in scoring position, Luzardo got aggressive, hunting the high corner with his four-seamer and dropping breaking balls below the zone. A slight change in fastball shape makes that strategy workable; he added ride to his four-seamer while losing fade. It’s not a huge amount in either direction, but it helps him avoid the awkward zone where fastballs play down.

That’s not to say that I’ve totally bought in. I’m skeptical of his sinker, which is a little too close to his four-seamer for my liking, and it already generated poor groundball rates last year before he added ride to it this offseason. It doesn’t get the seam-shifted wake effect that effective sinkers use so well; it almost feels like a vestigial pitch to me.

He also didn’t throw his changeup much. It used to be a meaningful part of his game, particularly against righties. In this start, he threw only two, and both were taken for balls. He’ll have to work it back into the mix as he works deeper into games; he faced 18 batters in this start and hit the showers before facing the dangerous top of the Angels’ lineup a third time. He also did it in an afternoon game, when the shadows at Angels Stadium seemed to affect hitters on both teams.

But seriously: 12 strikeouts! Angels batters swung 28 times and came up empty on 18 of those. They took another 16 pitches for strikes. This was burn-the-crops-and-salt-the-earth pitching; the Angels managed only three baserunners, and that felt like quite an achievement given how lost they looked. Watch Luzardo snap off Salvador Dalí sliders all day, and you can’t help expecting big things out of him this year.

I like to keep track of relievers with negative-FIP outings (you can call them “Kimbrels” if you like, after the patron saint of the statistic), but I’ve never really thought about it for starters before; that’s just not how starts work. Luzardo has a negative FIP. He has a negative xFIP! Those five innings were the equivalent of a five-inning Kimbrel outing, or Josh Hader if you want a lefty. He’s striking out 21.6 batters per nine innings, a stat that makes absolutely no sense; neither does a 66.7% strikeout rate.

Luzardo started the season as the Marlins’ fifth starter. He’s exactly one outing removed from the worst season of baseball in his life. It’s okay to pump the brakes if you’re a realist. But live a little! Dream on this Luzardo with me. Once one of the most talented young pitchers in the game, he looked like a reclamation case, but if this recent start was any indication, he’ll instead be a boon to the Marlins for years to come.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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9 months ago

Luzardo still worries me because he has a long history of losing significant velocity through his starts (I still think he throws too hard, and too hard too early), and he’s also yet to prove he can get guys out past the fifth inning, but these are encouraging signs moving forward. I liked the Luzardo – Marte trade as someone who follows the Marlins, hopefully he can keep making it happen.

Conor Amember
9 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Does he? Baseball Savant says his average MPH on fastballs by inning goes 1st: 96.1, 2nd: 95.4, 3rd: 95.3, 4th: 95.0, 5th: 94.9, 6th: 95.3, 7th: 94.9. Outside of the 1st inning (where I presume he is pressing to throw harder), it only deviates by half an MPH between innings 2 and 7.

9 months ago
Reply to  Conor A

For his career, his fastball velo goes from 96.25 MPH the first time through the order to 95.21 MPH the third time around or later, he loses a full tick, so there’s probably something he’s doing wrong in terms of either preparation, gameplan or intent.

He also throws too hard in general, he maxes out at close to 99 MPH (99.2 is what I have), but his average career velo is 95.8, just 3 MPH lower, which is reliever-like velo range. In that game against the Angels, all his four-seam fastballs were in between 99.2 and 96.1 MPH, reliever-like again. He also lost velo by the fourth and fifth inning. He pitches like a reliever, basically, max-effort right away and almost all the time, not like a guy who’s thinking about getting through 7+ innings.

Last edited 9 months ago by mariodegenzgz