Which 2019 rookie will make the biggest splash in 2020?

“Jesus Saves!” It is a popular saying across the world, apparently. It may adorn the green and yellow signs of the Coliseum next season as the Oakland Athletics aim to break the postseason voodoo by finally winning a Wild Card game. Why? It has everything to with the A’s number 1 prospect: Jesús Luzardo.

Acquired in the deal that sent Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to the Washington Nationals in 2017, the Peruvian Luzardo made his Major League debut this season. His stat-line was more than impressive: 16 strikeouts in just 12 innings including 2 saves and 2 holds with a 1.50 ERA and 0.67 WHIP. He also came on in relief in the A’s Wild Card loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, tossing a further 3 shutout innings with 4 strikeouts, the youngest pitcher to do so in a postseason game since Madison Bumgarner in 2010

The 22-year-old Luzardo is the epitome of pitchability. His 5-pitch armory made mouths water in his stint in the bigs, and his postseason cameo sent the hype train into overdrive. And rightly so, Luzardo threw four fastballs at a recorded velocity of 98.7 mph, his highest all season. His ability to mix in his wicked sinker with elite command not only generates groundballs for outs but has top hitters missing on both sides of the plate: a 12.0 K/9 ratio this season is backed up by 129 strikeouts with a 2.88 ERA over three levels of minor league ball in 2018.

What really gets the senses tingling is his devastating curveball, which generated a whiff on 68% of swings during the regular season. It is not even Luzardo’s best pitch behind his fastballs, that would be his sinking changeup: a pitch that is often delivered in hurry-up to jam the hitter. According to FanGraphs pitch values, his wCH/C (changeup) is 5.0 compared to a wCU/C (curveball) of 3.87. Expect these numbers to increase significantly when Luzardo establishes himself as a key piece of the rotation for the Athletics in 2020.

The A’s have propped up their rotation the last couple of years by acquiring older free agents or cheap trade bits to scuttle their way to the postseason. These short term deals are for players who either suit their pitcher-friendly park or complement their elite defensive unit: starters such as Mike Fiers (38.8% flyball rate) and Brett Anderson (54.5% groundball rate) have delivered 28 wins while recent trade acquisitions Tanner Roark (4–3) and Homer Bailey (6–3) both finished with winning records adding another 10 wins in 23 starts. This has allowed the A’s to bring prospects like Luzardo, AJ Puk and Daulton Jefferies along with caution, particularly important given all three have had major injury issues.

The immediate truth, however, is that the A’s don’t have to do this anymore. Their young arms are ready, Frankie Montas showed that this season with his stellar 9–2 record with a 2.63 ERA before being hit with a suspension for PEDs. Puk flashed his 98mph arm out of the bullpen and looked comfortably at home. The biggest plus was probably the return of lefty Sean Manaea after his injury plagued 2018. He looked phenomenal in the regular season, going 4–0 in his five starts with an improved slider.

Luzardo is the jewel in the crown, however. His incredible poise on the mound is second-to-none among rookies expected to break into the starting rotation in 2020. Luzardo is calm in his demeanor, confident in his ability and disciplined in his delivery – think of Luzardo as the complete opposite of Rick Moranis realising his dream of becoming a Ghostbuster.

Luzardo is fascinatingly unpredictable, an invaluable asset in these days of uber-analytics especially when pitching through the batting order multiple times. Likely to slide into the back end of the rotation after Fiers, Manaea and Montas, Luzardo will provide the A’s with an almost perfect right-left rotation balance. The only red flag is the injury history: Luzardo tore his ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2016, just a few months before being drafted by the Nationals in the draft. He then strained his left rotator cuff late in spring training this season which curtailed his expectations of making the A’s rotation.

“But, where should I draft him in fantasy next season?” I hear you say. Pitcher List recently released their first mock draft for the 2020 fantasy season and the price for Luzardo was high, the 10th round. Luzardo was selected a round behind aces such as Jose Berrios, Brandon Woodruff and Sonny Gray; and ahead of this season’s stellar performers such Hyun-Jin Ryu, Mike Soroka and Max Fried. So, expect competition for the A’s young gun. 

The beauty of the off-season is having the luxury to dive into analysis of the prospects and breakout candidates for 2020. Don’t be a fool, start with Jesús Luzardo.

Benjamin Haller, Dec 2019

Perfect MLB Starting Pitcher Rotation – 2019

CLEVELAND, OHIO – JULY 09: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Houston Astros during the 2019 MLB All-Star Game at Progressive Field on July 09, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

During his 2019 Hall of Fame induction speech one of the greatest closers in baseball history, Lee Smith said “it wasn’t just my arm that got me here, it was the whole community.” Very apt, especially when this season was supposed to see the evolution of the opener and the fall of the starting rotation.

The truth is that baseball organisations need to rely on a solid starting rotation more than ever. Of all the teams that are participating in the postseason, only the Tampa Bay Rays regularly used an opener and carried less than 5 starting pitchers in their rotation through the regular season.

So, let’s look at this season’s perfect starting 5 (and look out for the ones to watch for next season):

The Ace

Let’s start in Houston shall we? Why, well the Astros have not one but two surefire, genuine aces: Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. I would not be surprised if members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America decide to simply flip a coin on who takes out the American League Cy Young award. They have both been sensational.

Both stars have clocked over 200 innings pitched and 20 wins. Cole boasts a 2.50 ERA to Verlander’s 2.58 and also has a better K/9 (13.82 vs 12.11) and FIP (2.64 vs 3.27). Gerrit Cole, with a WAR exactly a point higher than Verlander’s (7.4 vs 6.4), just edges it for me – his elite fastball is valued at 36.2 wFB (total runs saved by a pitcher using that pitch), simply phenomenal. The closest starting pitcher to Cole is the St. Louis Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty at 31.8 wFB according to FanGraphs.

The competition behind Cole is elite but in the end they only serve as honourable mentions here. Jacob deGrom followed up his Cy Young year in 2018 with a few wobbles but came through to record the second best WAR in the league for starting pitchers (behind Cole) with 7.0. The Los Angeles Dodgers were finally graced with a full season from Hyun-Jin Ryu for the first time since 2014. Ryu finished with a Major League Baseball-leading 2.32 ERA for qualifying starting pitchers.

Ones to watch: aforementioned Cardinals young buck Jack Flaherty had a second half to remember allowing an ERA of just 0.93 in his last 16 starts. He will be the ace for this exciting Cardinals organisation for the foreseeable future. Luis Castillo also impressed earning his first All Star appearance. The Dominican recorded career-best marks in innings pitched (178 2/3), FIP (3.63), HR/9 (1.01) and placed 8th in strikeout rate among NL starters with 28.9%.

Dancing in the Moonlight

Slotting in second in the rotation, behind Mike Clevinger, has suited Indians young gun Shane Bieber very nicely indeed. In only his second year in the majors, Bieber led the American League with number of starts with 7 innings plus pitched and less than 2 earned runs allowed (15). His curveball is a monster, boasting a 48% whiff rate; and his 6.48 K/BB is the best for a starting pitcher aged 24 and under since 1871…wow! His strikeout number (259) trails only Cole and Verlander. What’s not to love, lock him in as your big game guy!

Ideally, a rotation’s number 2 guy throws with the opposite arm as your ace. So, let’s give some lefty love to Clayton Kershaw. Abandoned by the fantasy baseball world at the start of the year due to a shoulder injury, the Dodgers star finished 16-5 with a 3.05 ERA over 177 innings and 28 starts (his most since 2015). Contributing to a rotation that gave the Dodgers a combined 19.7 WAR, second to only the Astros, Kershaw once again proved he is not to be excluded from the conversation about the top arms in the game today,

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Mr Reliable

You could call it an insult, giving a guy you just handed a 6 year, $140m contract to the number 3 spot in the rotation. It clearly didn’t bother Patrick Corbin, the Washington Nationals’ newest pitching gem, however. To be fair when you pitch behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg the insult turns into a compliment. Corbin also proved to be the perfect complement to the Scherzer, Strasburg 1-2 punch as the crafty lefty finished with a 16-7 record.

Increased use of his devastating sinker (34.7 % of pitches thrown) along with his equally effective slider (37.0 %) proved to be the catalyst that propelled the Nationals back to the playoffs. Shrewd business in DC!

Another lefty deserves special mention after he racked up 17 wins (2nd in the National League) for the Atlanta Braves, who went on to win the NL East. Max Fried was dominant in the middle of the rotation in his second year, mainly thanks to a much improved overall command. His BB/9 dropping from 5.35 to 2.55 whilst delivering 176 strikeouts. He also threw a complete game in 76 pitches (thanks to a rain shortened contest).

Patrick Corbin delivers eight strong innings as the Nationals beat the Mets, 5-1. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Flame Thrower

Zach Wheeler was really fun to watch in New York this season. He set career highs in innings pitched (195) and strikeouts (195), his fastball ranking 4th in all Major League Baseball in vFA (average velocity) at 97.1 mph.

It was no surprise that Wheeler was in demand when rumours started to fly as the trade deadline approached. The Mets refused to trade him and Wheeler went 4-2 with a 2.66 ERA over his final 11 outings working behind deGrom, Thor and newly acquired Marcus Stroman. Boom!

He improved his BB/9 to a career best 2.30 in the majors, and finished the season with a 3.48 FIP, ranked 21st in the league and just behind Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty. Impressive.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Innings-Eater

To round out our perfect 2019 rotation we are looking for that diamond in the rough: a durable vet or breakout rookie that delivered in quality starts and delivered when his team needed him the most. I can think of a few off the top of my head: veterans such as Brett Anderson for the A’s and Gio Gonzalez for the Brewers were important in their teams making the post-season; Frankie Montas also an Oakland A was a young gun dealing fire before a suspension for PEDs.

I dug a bit deeper looking for a guy who provided something a bit different, something that consistently made him successful and set him apart from other back-end-of-the-rotation guys. Rising to the top was second year Cardinal arm, Dakota Hudson.

With a solid 16-7 record in his first season as a starter, Hudson pitched 174 innings across 32 starts. His low .275 BABIP is thanks to his elite ability to generate groundballs. Hudson led Major League Baseball with a 57.3% groundball rate among qualified starters, a valuable asset especially when you see today’s hitters love of the longball.

The Canadian Press

The 2019 Perfect Rotation

There you have it, ladies and gentleman, please applaud this season’s perfect starting rotation:

Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros
Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians
Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals
Zach Wheeler, New York Mets
Dakota Hudson, St. Louis Cardinals

*All stats above taken from FanGraphs and Baseball Reference