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Future ace? 'Luzardo Day' is finally here

A's top prospect moves to rotation after electric relief outings
@mattkellyMLB
August 4, 2020

The wait is just about over, A’s fans: Luzardo Day is finally upon us. We’ve already been thrilled by Jesús Luzardo, Oakland’s top prospect and MLB Pipeline’s No. 12 prospect overall, in short spurts out of the A’s bullpen, but the southpaw will finally make his first career start in

The wait is just about over, A’s fans: Luzardo Day is finally upon us.

We’ve already been thrilled by Jesús Luzardo, Oakland’s top prospect and MLB Pipeline’s No. 12 prospect overall, in short spurts out of the A’s bullpen, but the southpaw will finally make his first career start in Tuesday’s series opener against the Rangers, free on MLB.TV at 6:10 p.m. PT/9:10 ET. There have been setbacks, including a positive test for COVID-19 that delayed Luzardo’s arrival to Summer Camp by two weeks, but he’ll now take his first steps to becoming Oakland’s ace of the future.

Tuesday will be an exciting day for A’s fans, but if you’re just a fan of great pitching in general, this is a debut you won’t want to miss. That’s because from the very first pitch Luzardo threw out of the bullpen last September, he’s been more than a young rookie simply settling in -- he’s been blowing big league hitters away. Luzardo has allowed just three earned runs across his first 18 2/3 innings (1.45 ERA), and his underlying numbers suggest his level should maintain over a bigger workload as a starter.

Here are some numbers you should know about Oakland’s dynamic “Lizard King” before his starting debut.

His stuff is off the charts

Luzardo’s assortment of fastballs probably aren’t his best offerings, but we have to start there, because his elite velocity is what sets everything up. Simply put, Luzardo throws gas -- like, triple-digit gas; his fastest pitch so far was a 99.8 mph fastball to Tampa Bay’s Brandon Lowe during last year’s American League Wild Card Game. Luzardo’s velocity is extraordinary by any pitcher’s standards, but especially for a left-hander.

Highest average fastball velocity, LHP, since Luzardo's debut on 9/11/19
Min. 100 thrown
1) Gregory Soto (DET): 96.5 mph
2) Jesús Luzardo (OAK): 96.2 mph
3) Aaron Bummer (CWS): 95.8 mph
4) Josh Hader (MIL): 95.5 mph
5) Jake Diekman (OAK): 95.3 mph
Fastballs: 4-seam, 2-seam / sinker

Luzardo throws two different fastballs: a straight four-seamer that can pepper the top of the zone for whiffs, and a tailing sinker that misses barrels and gets him ground balls. They're two heaters that accomplish two different things, but each of them are hurled into the strike zone at 96 mph and above from the left side.

That kind of heat is a base skill that makes most pitchers envious (just ask Luzardo’s teammate, Sean Manaea), but, as we hinted before, Luzardo’s other pitches are even more devastating. Luzardo’s three-quarter arm slot puts a seriously sharp angle on his “slurve” breaking-ball pitch, which he routinely whips toward the plate in the mid-80s. Luzardo’s slurve (officially a slider, by Statcast’s definition) breaks downward about three inches more than the MLB average, and his opponents have been utterly helpless against it so far: they’re 2-for-20 with 13 strikeouts, and have missed on 56.4% of their swings against those breakers since Luzardo got his callup.

The curious thing is that Luzardo’s breaker wasn’t supposed to be his showcase pitch. MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo wrote before Luzardo’s debut last year that he had “worked hard to improve his breaking ball, and it’s at least above-average at this point.” It was really the changeup that was supposed to be Luzardo’s best secondary pitch -- and, sure enough, batters are 1-for-11 against it so far, with the lefty reeling off a couple beauties against Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in Game 2 of the 2020 season.

Maybe the scariest thing about Luzardo is that in some ways he’s still putting things together; he wasn’t satisfied with how he threw in that season debut against the Angels, an outing in which he put up three scoreless innings with a pair of strikeouts and two baserunners allowed. So, if he feels he can get better than what he’s already doing, well, look out. Former A’s starter and 11-year veteran Brett Anderson called Luzardo’s electric three innings in the 2019 AL Wild Card Game, “three of the most impressive innings I’ve seen out of anyone, let alone someone that young.”

The results are already eye-opening

After reading some of those at-bat numbers above, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn now that Luzardo is already extremely good at missing bats. As in, only six pitchers have done it more often since he joined the ranks.

Highest whiff-per-swing rate, since Luzardo's debut
Min. 100 swings against (185 pitchers)
1) Oliver Drake (TB): 50.0%
2) Drew Pomeranz (SD): 44.2%
3) Luke Jackson (ATL): 40.9%
4) Josh Hader (MIL): 39.4%
5) Yu Darvish (CHC): 39.1%
6) Chad Green (NYY): 38.9%
7) Tanner Rainey (WSH): 38.6%
8-T) Jesús Luzardo (OAK): 37.9%
8-T) Luis Castillo (CIN): 37.9%
10) Blake Snell (TB): 37.8%

That's a collection of names you want to rank beside -- especially if Luzardo can keep that figure up as a starter and stay beside aces like Darvish, Castillo, Snell and Gerrit Cole. Indeed, the word might already be getting out about Luzardo’s putaway ability, as the Rockies began attacking him early in the count the longer he got into his 3 2/3-inning relief appearance on Wednesday.

Opponents will start adapting to Luzardo the more they see him, but in a 60-game season that’s already down to a roughly 50-game sprint by the time he starts Tuesday, even Oakland’s AL West opponents might not see him more than a couple times before the playoffs. A second or third time through the order will also give him more opportunity to work in that changeup, giving him up to four superb pitches that he can use to mix up his looks. Luzardo will need to make plenty of adjustments over the coming years to truly be the A’s next ace, but in a season like this, Oakland should be able to just set him loose and let him wreak havoc. The Astros' multitude of pitching injuries could bring them back to the rest of the pack in the AL West, and so maybe Luzardo will be that X-factor that brings a division title back to the Bay.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.