For a rookie campaign, Jesús Luzardo’s 2020 can be viewed as mostly a positive.
Starting out the year pitching out of the bullpen after a late arrival to Summer Camp limited his workload, the left-hander finished 3-2 with a 4.12 ERA in 12 regular-season games (nine starts) and ranked second among Major League rookies with 59 strikeouts over 59 innings. Satisfactory numbers, but not good enough for Luzardo.
There’s a reason why the A’s never shied away from the lofty expectations that were placed on Luzardo at such a young age. The 23-year-old lefty embraces the pressures of being called the next great ace to anchor a starting rotation in Oakland, which only seem to be heightened this Spring Training as he enters a strong candidate to start for the A’s on Opening Day.
“We have probably thrown more at him at an early age than anybody since I’ve been here,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “The reason is that he’s a really talented guy. My expectation of Jesús is to be a top of the rotation starter, and that probably starts this year. Last year I think he hit some speed bumps that were new to him, and he’s going to be better for that this year.
“I think he takes an added step forward this year. I believe he’ll be an All-Star here at some point.”
Luzardo wants to fulfill those prophecies. It’s why he’s developed such a relentless work ethic, one that fellow A’s pitcher Mike Fiers caught a glimpse of this offseason while working out together back home in Florida.
“It's impressive seeing him, the way he works and what he wants to accomplish,” Fiers said. “He has high expectations of himself. It's always good to see a guy that's always pushing to get better and be better, and I'm sure you will see it this year. I don't think he was too happy about last year.
“I think he felt like he could have done a lot better and I know he can be a lot better, too. I've seen him pitch for a while. I think the team expects high things from him. Not that we're trying to put too much pressure on him, but he has the stuff to be really good. For him, it's all about staying healthy.”
Health is of the utmost concern for any pitcher. This is especially true for Luzardo, who has dealt with arm and shoulder issues early in his professional career. That’s why he considered getting through last season injury-free as such a huge accomplishment. Now getting back to a full 162-game season, though, the challenge becomes even more difficult.
To prepare his body for the long haul, Luzardo spent the winter training at Cressey Sports Performance in Jupiter, Fla., on a strength and conditioning program with a focus on durability.
“I haven’t [been through a full season] so we’ll see how it goes this year,” Luzardo said. “I think I’m in some of the best shape I’ve ever been. I feel my mechanics are where they need to be. I think I did everything I could in the offseason and have no regrets. I’m ready to show that I can be here for a full 162.”
On the pitching side of things, Luzardo has worked on repeating his mechanics in order to get himself in tune for the upcoming season. One major focus was rediscovering his breaking ball, which got away from him last season after serving as a devastating complement to his 98 mph heater during his brief but dominant callup to the Majors in 2019. Luzardo believes having that breaking ball back to its true form, in addition to an already strong changeup and power fastball, can help avoid some of the ups and downs he went through in a year that was still solid enough to earn some American League Rookie of the Year votes.
“I was just trying to get it back to what it was when I got called up in 2019,” Luzardo said. “I feel that breaking ball that I had was the best I’ve ever thrown. Last year, I couldn’t really find a good feel for it throughout the year, and now it’s back to where it was.”
Luzardo doesn’t really need extra motivation, but he’s got it after his rough go in two postseason starts last year. He considers himself a pitcher who can perform on the big stage, certainly much better than his showing of seven runs allowed across 7 2/3 innings in starts against the White Sox and Astros. So as the A’s set out on their goal of defending their AL West title, Luzardo will be itching to get back on the mound for a chance to prove himself in October.
“I think everyone wants to get there and show we can win a World Series,” Luzardo said. “For me, I’m extremely eager to get back to the postseason and show what I could do. Hopefully, we do that this year.”