Jesús Luzardo entered the 2020 MLB season as the favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year. The 22-year-old phenom looked like a star last year after making his major league debut with A's in September.
Luzardo had a 1.50 ERA for the A's in six relief appearances last season, and struck out 16 batters over 12 innings pitched. He entered this season as a possible ace for Oakland, and then tested positive for the coronavirus ahead of the A's Summer Camp.
The young lefty has been good, not great, during this shortened season. But on Saturday, he dominated the Giants in a 6-0 win, and unleashed a new pitch at the perfect time.
"I got a slider, a different type of slider back," Luzardo told reporters after the win, via The Athletic's Steve Berman. "So I’m glad that I have that in the bag now.”
Luzardo threw a slider over a third of his pitches last season, according to Brooks Baseball. Opposing hitters had a .111 batting average against the slider last season, and then he replaced it with a curveball this year. Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant still registered his sliders Friday as curveballs, too.
That probably has to do with the mystery of this new slider. Even Luzardo doesn't know what it always will look like when he throws the pitch.
"It looked like a slider at times, it looked like a curveball at times," Luzardo said. "And then it looked like a cutter at times. So I’m glad that Jonah (Heim) was able to handle it back there for the most part.
"... I think I threw one that said like 89 or 88, which is unreal for me. I’ve never thrown a slider, I think, above 85, which is pretty cool.”
Baseball Savant only registered two of Luzardo's sliders last season, labeling his offspeed as a curveball. Those two sliders averaged 83.7 mph. That's a big difference compared to his 95.4 mph fastball. Luzardo's fastball velocity is in the 84th percentile in all of baseball. If he can unleash a breaking ball that looks closer to his fastball and moves like a mix of a slider and cutter, that's a huge win for the A's.
Luzardo looked dominant Saturday against the Giants. He struck out seven batters over six scoreless innings, dropping his season ERA from 4.32 to 3.86. With the A's already clinching a playoff berth and the AL West championship right in their grasp, this version of Luzardo came at a perfect time.
Manager Bob Melvin will have a big decision to make regarding who starts in their three-game first-round matchup. Chris Bassitt looked great again Friday against the Giants, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas have been inconsistent, Mike Fiers has been up and down, and Mike Minor has given the A's mixed results since being acquired from the Texas Rangers.
This is where Luzardo comes into play. He very well could be the A's Game 2 starter in the playoffs, and pitching depth becomes huge after the first round in this sprint of a postseason. Batters whiffed on 63 percent of Luzardo's slider last season. And he seems even more pleased with this new version.
Buckle up. Luzardo could go from top prospect to playoff ace before we even know it.