Going Deep: The Coming of Jesus Luzardo
Recently at Pitcher List, we have been releasing a bunch of dynasty and prospect content because we know that side of fantasy baseball never rests! I released a top 150 fantasy baseball prospects list in late October which can be found here, and my colleague Brennen Gorman has been releasing a position by position look at the top players to own in dynasty leagues. In my top 150 prospects list, I ranked Oakland Athletics (A’s) SP prospect Jesus Luzardo 13th overall, and as the #2 SP prospect for fantasy baseball purposes. Unlike my last “Going Deep” article on Nathaniel Lowe where I was shedding light on a prospect not getting his proper due, Luzardo is a highly regarded prospect. In fact, MLB.com’s prospect watch ranks Luzardo as their #12 overall prospect and #2 overall pitching prospect behind only Forrest Whitley of the Houston Astros organization. Fangraphs has him ranked at 31st overall behind 6 other pitching prospects plus Tampa Bay Rays 1B/LHP prospect Brendan McKay.
I personally am quite high on Luzardo’s future outlook and that’s because he combines the ideal skillset for thriving in the major leagues; an ability to miss bats at an elite level and keep hitters off-balance with “pitchability” beyond his years, an ability to generate weak groundball oriented contact, and the of type command and control to limit walks. Not only that, but he’s a guy that the A’s have pushed aggressively and is now on the verge of reaching the majors. He could even be on the opening day roster if Athletics manager Bob Melvin has any say in the matter. This all contributes to why I felt it was worthwhile to go further in-depth with an article to explain why I think Luzardo deserves your attention in fantasy leagues, both in re-draft for 2019 and in dynasty leagues. Let’s begin!
Jesus Luzardo started his professional career as a member of the Washington Nationals organization after being selected out of High school in the 3rd round, 94th overall back in 2016. He had some first-round buzz early in his draft year as perhaps the most advanced and polished high-school lefty in the class, and one who also was throwing harder than the summer before by hitting mid-90’s that spring. He, unfortunately, tore his ulnar collateral ligament shortly into his senior year that required Tommy John Surgery and that pushed him down draft boards where the Nationals were able to swoop in and pay him an over-slot $1.4 Million bonus to get him in the organization, a bonus that was worth twice the slot value for the pick.
Upon returning to the mound in 2017, now as a professional baseball player and post-Tommy John surgery, Luzardo quickly rewarded the Nationals patience by dominating for their Gulf Coast League team with a 1.32 ERA over 13.2 innings with 15 strikeouts against 0 walks. Scouting reports at this point suggested that the mid-90’s fastball velocity from his senior high-school season had returned, and his ability to quickly find his command and feel again so soon after surgery was impressive. That quick success clearly caught the attention of other organizations as Luzardo was traded to the Oakland A’s organization part way through that 2017 season along with RP Blake Treinen and 3B prospect Sheldon Neuse in exchange for RPs Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle.
Upon joining his new organization, Luzardo moved to the Arizona Rookie-League where he continued to dominate over four appearances, three of them starts, totaling 11.2 innings while allowing just 2 earned runs. This time he struck out 13 batters while issuing just a single walk. At this point, the Athletics decided to challenge him with an aggressive assignment to Low-A Vermont in the New York-Penn League to close the season, a league mostly made up of recent college draftees. He responded to the challenge with yet more impressive performances as he ended up throwing 18 innings at the level over 5 starts, allowing 4 runs, while striking out 20 to just 4 walks. Add his 2017 numbers up across all levels and he posted a cool 1.66 ERA with 48 strikeouts against just 5 walks over 43.1 innings…that is a really impressive first full professional season that highlights Luzardo’s ability to miss bats and limit walks!
Enter 2018, Luzardo goes to Spring Training and leaves a positive impression by throwing 6 innings of shutout ball over 3 games, 2 of them starts with short pitch counts and did so with 6 strikeouts against 1 walk. Notably, one of those strikeouts came against perhaps the best hitter in MLB, a guy with a league-leading 175 wRC+ since 2014, OF Mike Trout:
It should be noted that Mike Trout struck out just 4 times in spring training last year in 48 ABs, and here was getting K’d by a then 20-year-old pitcher that hadn’t reached a full-season level in the minors. Luzardo then was assigned to High-A in the high scoring California League to start the year where he began a truly masterful season that included 2 promotions. Let’s take a look at the season numbers-wise:
As you can see, Luzardo handled High-A and AA very well despite being very young for each level, and there are even some positive indicators from his short AAA debut despite the inflated BABIP and ERA. I’m not the biggest fan of stats like K/9 because high BABIP pitchers can be rewarded since the number of outs remains the same even if they’re giving up, say, 10+ hits per game, but you can’t help but notice the dominant K/9 marks and swinging-strike rates, both of which are elite across the board. Note that the league average last year in the majors for swinging-strike rates among SPers was 10.2% so even with regression built in during a transition to the majors, he projects as a guy that can miss bats at a valuable rate. Then even when he did allow contact, it was generally weak contact and it generally leaned groundball heavy at all 3 levels as well which led to lower BABIPs. Guys who miss bats and generate weak groundball contact are the dream! Especially when they show an ability to limit walks reasonably too.
Now the sample sizes for High-A and AAA are quite small, so let’s forget about them for a moment and take a more in-depth look at how Luzardo’s numbers ranked within the AA Texas League among those pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched:
|Batting Average Against||.201||1st|
He clearly dominated the AA Texas League ranking in the top 3 in every category except walk rate which was a top 10 figure itself. What makes this even more impressive is that he accomplished this all while being the youngest pitcher in the Texas League, and the 3rd youngest overall player in the league behind San Diego Padres top prospect SS Fernando Tatis Jr. and fellow top 100 prospect C Keibert Ruiz of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
This led me to take a look back through Fangraphs leaderboards as far back as they have data (2006) to see if there are any comparables. Here is a list of the pitchers aged 20 years or younger from all AA leagues with at least 70+ innings pitched that have posted a FIP below 3.00:
Pretty interesting list that appears IMO! Notably, none of these pitchers has developed into a long-term top of the rotation type of arm, but most have had success in the majors barring Francis Martes of the Houston Astros, Matt Wisler now of the Cincinnati Reds, and Bryse Wilson of the Atlanta Braves as well. In Martes case, he pitched out of the bullpen in 2017 for the Houston Astros and then had Tommy John surgery in 2018, Wisler has had chances but has been unable to miss enough bats at the major league level due to a lack of viable 3rd pitch, and Wilson rose from AA to the majors this past year and hasn’t had much of a chance to prove himself just yet. Among the guys leftover, all of Phil Hughes, Yovani Gallardo, and Shelby Miller have been selected to play in the MLB All-Star game and have been valuable assets in both real life and fantasy baseball at various points. In the case of Luzardo, I think the case for optimism when comparing him to this group comes from the fact that he was able to lead in 3 of perhaps the most valuable categories; walk rate, swinging-strike rate, and groundball rate (note that Fangraphs does not have swinging-strike rate or groundball rates from the minors for 2006 and prior). All 3 are categories that correlate with limiting hits and base runners which is obviously a good thing.
Now that you’ve seen the numbers, let’s take a look at Luzardo’s pitching repertoire that helps him achieve those numbers:
His fastball sits in the 93-95 range and he can reach back for a little extra at times too when he needs it. Not only is it a high-velocity fastball from the left side, but Luzardo also has a lot of movement on the pitch which makes it tough to square up. He can elevate the fastball where it’s tailing life up in the zone makes it tough on right-handed hitters like in the first GIF. He can also pound the ball down where there’s a natural hard two-plane run and sinking action on the ball that helps him generate weak contact and miss bats below the belt. The 2nd gif is a solid example. The ability to command the fastball is still a touch inconsistent at the moment, but his ability to work it both inside and outside and also change eye levels with it is what makes it a true plus pitch.
The Curveball is interesting because it wasn’t what I was expecting. Multiple sources have future above-average or even plus grades on the curveball and my initial looks at the pitch didn’t leave me feeling great about those projections. As you can see in the GIFs above, it’s a non-traditional looking curveball, one that looks a lot like a slider at times with a 10-to-4 movement. You can also see that the pitch is more of a sweeping breaking ball rather than a late-breaking pitch with suddenness and that left me wondering if the pitch would miss enough bats at the major league level to be genuinely viable. Now one of the things that pop up in Luzardo’s scouting reports consistently is his ability to add and subtract from his curveball to give hitters a different look. I did some digging on that subject and found this interesting quote by way of Oakland Clubhouse:
“I call it a curveball,” Luzardo said. “It breaks differently – I kind of manipulate it myself, so it’s kind of two pitches in one. It’s just the way I throw it. I kind of throttle it. I can throw it a little harder or throw it a little slower and give it more shape.”
A conversation with Pitcher List founder Nick Pollack (aka Dad) was then had where he mentioned that breaking ball manipulation is a popular thing now and that there are a number of notable examples and success stories including Patrick Corbin with his slider and Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians with his Cutter/Curveball. Bringing things back to Luzardo, his ability to essentially have 2 pitches in one allows him to achieve a sum greater than the tools with his breaking ball. Imagine the difficulty of trying to square up one of the breaking balls when both come from the same release point, they both have a similar trajectory and spin, yet they are coming at you at different velocity bands. The result is often that the hitter is going to be handcuffed and forced to rely on instinct. This can be called a form of “pitch tunneling” which you can read more about the great Michael Augustine here.
The changeup is Luzardo’s money pitch! It sits in the 82-85 MPH range which means it has an extreme velocity separation from his mid-90’s fastball. You can really see in the first changeup GIF how out front the hitter was on that pitch. Then if you compare the 1st fastball GIF with the 2nd changeup GIF (note both are from the same at-bat), you can see that he does a great job in maintaining arm speed and release point with the changeup compared to the fastball which only further enhances the effectiveness of the pitch. The pitch also features some really steep vertical movement and he’s able to both drop the pitch into the top of the zone or bury it below. Perhaps most importantly he’s able to throw it for strikes and also doesn’t leave it in the heart of the plate very often.
So what does this all mean for 2019 and beyond? Well, I personally think that Jesus Luzardo is already among the top 5 most talented starting pitchers in the Oakland Athletics organization. I mean Roster Resource has Daniel Mengden, Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt, Aaron Brooks, and Paul Blackburn listed as part of their current 5-man starting rotation. All of them are projected by Steamer to produce less than 1.0 WAR in 2019. Notably, the top Steamer projected pitcher in the Oakland A’s organization for 2019 is…Jesus Luzardo with a 1.2 WAR mark along with a 4.20 ERA and 106 strikeouts against 43 walks in 120 innings pitched. Knowing how conservative Steamer projections can be with prospects, I think that’s a pretty interesting projection.
Knowing that the A’s are looking to be competitive again this year after a 97-win season in 2018, I can see them turning to one of their best pitchers in Luzardo fairly early in the season and I have a mid-2019 ETA on him. I anticipate that he’ll either be up a few weeks into the season sort of like how Walker Buehler was called up to make his first MLB start with the Dodgers, or the Athletics will wait until post-Super 2 in June. Remember, Luzardo has just 16 IP at AAA so far so giving him some more experience at the highest level of the minor leagues wouldn’t be a bad thing. Regardless, of his actual MLB debut date, he’s a guy to remember late in redraft leagues as he can potentially give you mid-rotation value right away with perhaps upside for more. I personally took him late in our most recent Pitcher List Early Mock Draft which you can read more about here, and I notably chose him as my top sleeper pick. In dynasty leagues, I continue to value him highly and view him as the #2 pitching prospect to own at this point. The combination of 3 above-average or better pitches with above-average command gives him the upside of a true #2 SP and he may not be far from reaching it!
(Graphic by Justin Paradis)