Following a Saturday night bullpen implosion against the Yankees, Athletics lefty Jesús Luzardo set a club record as the first reliever to give up a homer in 5 straight appearances. Luzardo was then optioned to AAA on Monday, right-hander Domingo Acevedo had his contract selected and will take his spot.
Viewed as a consensus top 15 prospect in all of baseball before his debut, Luzardo has had an up and down start to his young career. After a 2019 cup of coffee and a 59-inning taste in 2020, Luzardo looked like he fit the bill he’d been tabbed up to; an up-and-coming elite power lefty starter. A 3.68 ERA (3.93 FIP), backed by commendable strikeout and walk totals (25.5 K%, 6.8 BB%) through 2020 got the hype train rolling and set the stage for a sunny 2021 forecast.
Starting 2021 in the rotation, three of Luzardo’s six starts to open the season were decent, while the other three were unsightly. Overall, a 5.79 ERA through his first 28 innings with 30 strikeouts to 12 walks was acceptable but disappointing.
The disappointment continued. On May 2nd, the Peruvian pitcher was placed on the injured list after he broke his finger by hitting his hand playing video games in what he called “a freak accident.” After roughly a month of rehab, the prized Athletics pitcher was back on a major league mound. However, the mid-May return of James Kaprelian and the emergence of Cole Irvin left Luzardo as the odd man out of the rotation and in the pen. That’s where disappointment turned to disaster.
In the ten innings following his return, Luzardo gave up eleven runs on six big flys, all of which came in five successive appearances. While Luzardo got consistent swings and misses courtesy of his nasty slurve, the quality of contact he allowed was too damaging. The question is, why the sudden and unfortunate dip for Luzardo, and what’s next for him?
The most damage against Luzardo came against his 4-seam fastball with hitters slugging a ridiculous .784 (.716 xSLG) against the pitch. Last season, it was a vulnerable pitch but a .508 SLG against was at least stomachable. In 2021, hitters have crushed seven homers off Luzardo’s 4-seamer and there are a few reasons why. Release point, spotty command of the pitch, and the fact that hitters are approaching him differently now that there’s a scouting report on the hard thrower.
Luzardo’s repertoire is comprised of four distinct pitches: a 4-seamer, a 2-seamer/sinker, a curveball (slurve), and a changeup. Many pitchers have varying release points on their different pitches, however, too much variation tips to the hitter what’s coming. That could be causing issues for Luzardo since he has four distinct release points on all four of his pitches.
It’s not as easy to see in the overlay (right), but you can still see how spread out his release points are. Notably, between Luzardo’s 4-seam and changeup (an integral change of pace sequence for pitchers that requires deception), there is 0.3 feet (about four inches) of disparity in his release.
Now it’s worth noting that the disparity in Luzardo’s release points isn’t out of the ordinary, as it’s possible for a pitcher to succeed with distinct release points. However, in this case, it’s a piece of the puzzle for hitters seeing the 4-seamer as a meatball.
Next are the command & control issues. To start, his walk rate must be mentioned. Luzardo’s current 9.2 BB% is the highest of his career at any level and suggests that there may be some mechanical issues needing to be ironed out. A mental breather against lesser competition might also do wonders for Luzardo’s control.
Like most pitchers who hit a rough patch, Luzardo’s consistently missing spots with his fastball. With the release point and potential tipping of the fastball along with missed location, a compounding effect begins to take shape. If hitters can often guess what pitch is coming and it’s mislocated belt-high or over the heart of the plate, chances are that it’s going to get barreled. According to Baseball Savant, all but one (a Yuli Gurriel homer on a pitch nearly out of the zone) of Luzardo’s allowed home runs against the 4-seamer have been over the heart of the plate, highlighting the strategy hitters are coming to the plate with against Luzardo.
Against the lefty, hitters own an 80.5 meatball swing%, which ranks as the 17th highest mark in the league. Of course, hitters are always inclined to swing at pitches over the heart of the plate, but it seems that’s been the strategy against Luzardo: wait for a mislocated 4-seam fastball, which is a decent bet considering 63 of Luzardo’s 220 4-seamers have been meatballs (28.6%). On the contrary, his 2-seam fastball has sat over the heart of the plate on 41 of 172 offerings (23.8%). Though still not ideal, the lesser figure is a key reason that pitch is being slugged .284 points less (.500) despite having a higher batting average against.
On a positive note, Luzardo’s slurve has been excellent, as advertised. A .165 xwOBA and .215 wOBA against the pitch show that hitters have had a tough time doing much of anything against the breaker. Better yet, a 55.3% whiff rate is the 8th best mark amongst curveballs in MLB.
Now with a chance to figure things out in the minors, Luzardo has his work cut out for him. The breaking ball, as mentioned, has remained an above-average pitch and perhaps needs to be featured more than 21.5% of the time compared to 59.5% usage between the two fastballs. Fastball command will be the most important skill to refine with a goal of locating to the corners more effectively without getting behind in counts. Trying to merge the release points of his fastballs and changeup would add more deception as well.
Being fast-tracked to the majors (47 career innings in AAA prior to 2021 & 78.2 in AA) and debuting at 21 wasn’t an easy ask of Luzardo. Despite the pure talent, it’s not uncommon for young pitchers to struggle and then return from a minor league assignment in better form. While it’s concerning how the phenom’s fastball has performed in the big leagues, there’s still plenty of hope and time that he can still turn the dual mid-to-upper 90s offerings into weapons.