Saturday, May 21, 2022

Fantasy Baseball: What could the upside look like for Jesus Luzardo, Tylor Megill, Alex Cobb and Matt Brash?

You don’t want to overreact to one game this early in the baseball season. That’s the mantra we’re repeating for just about everything we say and write this week, and it’ll mostly be true for the next few weeks. That’s not to say there’s nothing we can react to, but generally speaking, your preseason expectations should hold a lot more weight than what we’ve seen so far. 

But, let’s say we want to overreact. There were a few pitchers Tuesday who put together performances worth overreacting about, after all, so let’s allow ourselves to dream on Jesus Luzardo, Tylor Megill, Alex Cobb and Matt Brash. Not on what their most likely outcome is, but what the best-case scenario could look like if what we saw Tuesday was for real. 

Jesus Luzardo – The next Carlos Rodon?

That’s what I thought while watching Luzardo mow through the Angels on Tuesday night for 12 strikeouts in five innings. Like Rodon, Luzardo was once a top prospect who has struggled with injuries and poor performance while trying to figure out what kind of pitcher he is. That both are lefties who are suddenly throwing harder than just about any starter in baseball only helps the analogy, as Luzardo’s fastball velocity was up 1.7 mph Tuesday, to 97.6 on average. 

Of course, the way Luzardo went about his dominant turn didn’t look that much like Rodon’s typical start. Rodon’s breakout last season was fueled by the emergence of his fastball as a monstrously dominant pitch, while Luzardo got 12 of his 18 swinging strikes on his curveball, which he threw on half of his pitches. But hey, analogies don’t have to be perfect to have value. The point is that Luzardo looked like he has taken a significant step forward, and that’s something we saw signs of in the spring when he struck out 10 with just three walks in 11.2 innings – the latter being a good sign after he walked 4.5 per nine in 2021. 

What we saw from Luzardo was a jump to elite velocity and a breaking ball that played up in a big way. He only threw his changeup two times, and 50% curveball usage might be tough to get away with for a full season. However, his changeup has been a good pitch in the past – 35% whiff rate in 2021, 44.1% in 2020 – and Luzardo changes both the speed and shape of his curveball enough that heavy usage of that pitch may not be much of a concern. Which is to say, even the nitpicky things aren’t necessarily that concerning.

Can Luzardo be as dominant as Rodon was last season? That’s probably asking for too much, especially because Luzardo’s fastball just doesn’t project to be dominant in the same way as Rodon’s – the velocity is similar, but he doesn’t spin the ball as well or get as much extension, making it less likely to be an excellent swing-and-miss pitch. However, if his fastball can just avoid being terrible, his secondaries could make up for the rest of what he might lack. Luzardo was one of the top prospects in baseball just a few years ago, and the Marlins have a pretty strong track record with young pitchers, part of the reason I was on Luzardo as a sleeper coming into the season. 

Add it all up, and you can certainly see how Luzardo could be one of the better pitchers in the league this season. He’s never been lacking for talent, and based on Tuesday’s start, I’ve already moved him into my top-50 overall at starting pitcher. But there’s top-20 upside here now.

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Tylor Megill –  A Zack Wheeler-esque leap?

Megill wasn’t terribly impressive in 2021, but he wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination – a middling 4.52 ERA looked more impressive with a 3.87 expected ERA backing him up. And that was when he was averaging 94.6 mph with his fastball; through two starts, he’s up to 96.4. And the thing about throwing harder is, while it doesn’t guarantee a pitcher will be good – I’m quite skeptical of Mitch Keller despite his velo jump – it makes the margin for error wider for any pitcher. And Megill was already starting from a pretty high floor based on what we saw in 2022. 

Megill is a big pitcher at 6-foot-7 and gets a lot of extension with his throwing mechanics, but his 21.5% whiff rate and .329 expected wOBA with the pitch in 2021 were nothing special. However, it’s a lot easier to dream when he’s dialing it up to 99 at the upper level. Megill is up to a 27% whiff rate with the pitch, which puts him in the above-average range, which seems like a pretty reasonable expectation given the velocity leap. 

But it’s the impact on the secondary pitches that could be where Megill really makes a leap. His changeup velocity is up 4.7 mph, and he’s used that to generate weak contact so far, while his slider – which is only up 0.5 mph, interestingly – has been his go-to, put-away pitch. He’s generating a lot more movement with the slider, and if hitters have to gear up for 96-99 mph fastballs and 89-91 mph changeups, that could make the slider even more effective, too. 

Megill established a fairly high floor last season with that 3.87 xERA, 26.1% strikeout rate, and 7.1% walk rate. The increased velocity isn’t a guarantee that he’ll be even better, but it has made Megill a must-add player at this point in the season. And it could make him a low-3.00s pitcher with 10-plus K/9. I think Luzardo probably has more upside, but Megill looks even easier to project right now. 

Matt Brash – A whiff wizard

When you can hit 99 mph consistently in your major-league debut and your fastball isn’t even close to the headline attraction, you’re working with a pretty special skill set:

Brash’s breaking ball(s) are cartoonish. I throw the parenthetical in there because it’s not clear if he actually has multiple versions of the pitch, or simply switches up the velocity consistently – StatCast identifies both a slider and a knuckle curve with nearly identical spin rates, though the slider comes in harder and with more horizontal movement, while the curveball has more drop. Either way, he threw breaking balls on 60% of his pitches Tuesday, picking up all six of his strikeouts and all 11 of his swinging strikes on the pitch. 

Brash’s breaking stuff figures to give him a high strikeout floor, and he fanned 36% of opposing hitters in Double-A last season. The question is whether that’ll be enough to make him a difference-making starter in the majors. His changeup was just a show-me pitch Tuesday, as he leaned on the slower version of the breaking ball against lefties, reserving the harder slider for right-handed hitters. That raises the question of whether he’ll be able to get lefties out or get through the lineup three times consistently – though it’s worth noting he actually had better results against lefties last season, so it may not be that big of a concern. 

Brash is easy to get excited about, but he’s a bit of an unconventional pitcher who might not pitch deep into games consistently – he averaged fewer than five innings per start and only had 97.1 innings in 2021. That limits the kind of upside Brash can have, and puts him below Luzardo, Megill, and even Cobb in my priority rankings for immediate SP adds. But I would be willing to drop someone like Tarik Skubal or Aaron Civale for him, surely. 

Alex Cobb – The Thing has help

Cobb’s results have always been tied to the status of his splitter/changeup – dubbed “The Thing.” It’s been his best pitch, and last season he threw it 37% of the time en route to an injury-marred bounce-back. He was one of my favorite sleepers coming into the season based on his 2021, when he had a 3.76 ERA but a 2.92 FIP and 3.38 xFIP, and I was even more intrigued when reports of a velocity spike in spring training came out. However, we didn’t get to see him pitch in front of StatCast cameras, so we couldn’t confirm whether the velocity spike was real.

On Tuesday, at least, it was. He averaged 94.5 mph with his sinker, up 1.8 mph from 2021 and the highest it’s ever been in the majors. He threw his sinker 51.8% of the time and got five of his 10 strikeouts with it to go along with a 22.2% whiff rate on swings, compared to 14.4% last season. Of course, the splitter was the better pitch for him, and he had nine swinging strikes with it and the other five strikeouts while throwing it 43% of the time.

The Giants had a ton of success with a very similar pitcher last season in Kevin Gausman, who has always needed his splitter to be effective. Cobb signing with the Giants made me think they saw something in him in the same way, and after seeing the velocity spike for real in his debut, it’s easy to get even more excited for Cobb. Can he be as good as Gausman was last year? It’ll depend on whether he can sustain high swinging strike rates with the splitter, and the velocity should only help in that regard. But that’s the model Cobb is working off, and it wouldn’t totally shock me if Cobb was a top-24 pitcher if he could sustain this. He’s moved into my top-50 at SP, sandwiched in between Megill and Luzardo. 

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