Thursday, May 26, 2022

Why Marlins lefty Jesús Luzardo is poised for breakout season after 12-strikeout game vs. Angels

Two seasons ago lefty Jesús Luzardo was one baseball’s top prospects and coming off an impressive September call up with the Oakland Athletics. He pitched well during the shortened 2020 season, then struggled so much in 2021 that he spent time in the minors, and Oakland was willing to trade him for two months of Starling Marte. That was unthinkable even six months earlier.

Luzardo, now 24, was no better with the Miami Marlins (6.44 ERA in 57 1/3 innings) after than the trade than he was with the A’s before the trade (6.87 ERA in 38 innings). On Tuesday though, Luzardo looked like a different pitcher en route to dominating the Los Angeles Angels. He struck out 12 in five innings of one-run ball before reaching his early-season pitch limit.

“Being paired with Dontrelle Willis, he was a guy I grew up watching. It’s an honor for me,” Luzardo told reporters, including MLB.com’s Brian Wright, after being told he tied Willis’ and Wei-Yin Chen’s franchise record for strikeouts by a lefty.

Beyond the results, Luzardo was a different pitcher Tuesday night that he was last year. His fastball velocity was up noticeably — his heater averaged 97.6 mph Tuesday after sitting 95.9 mph last year — and that was true in spring training, though Statcast is not available in every spring ballpark, so we couldn’t get confirmation. Now we know for certain he’s throwing harder.

Also, Luzardo had a different shape on his breaking ball, which sometimes looks like a slider and sometimes looks like a curveball, and can confuse the various pitch tracking systems. For our purposes, we’ll call it a curveball, though it had screwball-like action Tuesday. Here’s the vertical movement vs. horizontal movement of Luzardo’s pitches since last season:

jesus-luzardo-movement.png

Jesús Luzardo’s breaking ball is now more of a screwball. TruMedia/CBS Sports

Luzardo’s curveball had more movement down and to his armside (i.e. away from righties and in on lefties), which is not the shape it had in the past. He threw 38 curveballs Tuesday night (he threw only 36 fastballs) and Angels hitters swung at 13 of them. They missed with 12 of those 13 swings, an outrageous 92 percent whiff rate. The Halos could not touch the pitch.

“I feel like I had some of the best stuff I’ve had ever in my big league career,” Luzardo told the Miami Herald‘s Jordan McPherson after Tuesday’s game.

The bullpen wasted Luzardo’s 12-strikeout effort and the Marlins lost Tuesday’s game on a walk-off (LAA 4, MIA 3), though the big picture matters more, and Miami will happily take one loss in April if they continue to get this version of Luzardo all year. He was dynamic, and while he won’t get 92 percent whiffs with his curveball all year (no one does), the extra velocity and new shape on the curveball are tangible reasons to believe Luzardo is ready to take the next step in his career.

“He’s special when it clicks,” pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. told McPherson in during spring training. “Big upside. Players sometimes will let you know when they’re ready to overcome things and take off.”

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