Fantasy Baseball SP ADP Battle: Jesus Luzardo, Zach Eflin, Eury Perez, and Kyle Bradish

With fantasy baseball drafts heating up, I started a new article series a few weeks ago where I look at 3-4 starting pitchers who are going in the same ADP range and break down who I feel most confident in and why. The goal here isn't so much to make you agree with me as to help us all together think analytically about these pitchers to make decisions in our drafts that we feel most comfortable with.

You can find my look at third-round starters here, my take on the tail-end top-10 starters here, my analysis of pitchers bring drafted as fringe SP1s, and young studs with the potential to rise up rankings. Today we'll look at group of pitchers who are being drafted as SP2's but have flashed SP1 upside at times.

I also posted my complete top 100 starting pitcher rankings, with blurbs on each arm, and you can read that here.

All ADP data is taken from NFBC drafts from February 1st through February 12th, which is 32 drafts.

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Jesus Luzardo - Marlins (ADP: 84, SP23)

It's a bit of a surprise to see Jesus Luzardo leading this group since he has not yet reached the heights that some of the other pitchers have, but he has always carried a lot of hype with him ever since he was listed as one of the top pitching propects in baseball while he was in Oakland's minor league system. He will be entering his age 26 season and while we’ve seen clear growth from him since he joined Miami two years ago, we may also have seen the level he will settle in at. In 2023, he posted a 3.58 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 28.1% strikeout rate, and 14.1% swinging strike rate (SwStr%) in 178.2 innings. While those are strong numbers, there were no real meaningful changes between 2022 and 2023. He saw a minor improvement in walk rate but also slight dip in strikeout rate.

In fact, the biggest change for Luzardo was that this was the first season he's ever thrown over 100 innings. While he's still young and could be settling into a stretch of good health, it's interesting that drafters have this much confidence in him repeating that level of innings. Luzardo had Tommy John surgery once as a prep prospect and then experienced a major forearm injury in 2022 which led people to fear he could have to undergo Tommy John again. While he eventually avoided surgery, it's worth noting that arm issues have continued to be something he has battled prior to his fully healthy season last year. Can we rely on 180 innings again? I'd feel more comfortable projecting 150-160.

If we try to look for meaningful changes in his pitch mix, we can see that Luzardo leaned far more on his fastball in 2023, but you have to wonder how much of that is because his slider took a step back. Luzardo added 1.4 mph to his slider, which added more downward bite and helped him up the swinging strike on the pitch by 6%; however, it also got hit really hard (chart courtesy of Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard).

Luzardo pitch mix
Luzardo pitch mix

The slider posted a 48% Ideal Contact Rate (Pitcher List's stat that adds barrels + solid contact + hard groundballs and divides by batted ball events). That's up from 41% in 2022 when the pitch was more of a slurve or curve. Part of the problem is that, when he does throw it for a strike, which was only 33.5% of the time last year, he throws it n the middle of the zone 21.1% of the time. That's not a great combination.

Now, much about this fastball was actually better in 2023, but Nate Schwartz wrote a great piece that you can read here about how there might be room for more growth. Luzardo has great velocity on his heater, but he has poor Induced Vertical Break (iVB) and almost identical horizontal movement, so the pitch is kind of trapped between a two-seamer and a four-seamer. The pitchers who Nate points out have the most similar fastball shape to Luzardo are: Kyle Harrison, James Paxton, and Marco Gonzales. That's a confusing group to be a part of.

Luzardo also has poor extension on his four-seam, which ranks in the third percentile of pitchers, which may be why the pitch allowed 57th-percentile ICR and had just a 9.7% swinging strike rate, even though he does a good job of keeping it up and in on righties. He does have a solid change-up that he can also use against right-handed hitters which gets a good deal of swinging strikes and also doesn't induce hard contact.

So what we have here is a pitcher with some health concerns who has a mediocre fastball, a slider that was inconsistent with location, and a good change-up. There's certainly a way to look at that with rose-tinted glasses and say, "If he's healthy again and both his fastball and slider improve then we could be looking at a breakout." I see two years of similar results and a few concerning red flags and think. "Here's a 3.50-3.70 ERA pitcher with a strikeout rate that will push 30% in a good pitcher’s park." That’s still a really stable fantasy asset, but I'm not sure it's one I'd take over the other guys in this article.

Zach Eflin - Rays (ADP: 86, SP24)

I’m not sure why people are so down on Zach Eflin. For years we said, “If only he would throw his curveball more” or “If only he went to a team that could get the most out of his talent,” and then he does that and has a great year and people say, “What if he can’t do it again?” Which one is it? Is he the talented pitcher who just needed a better environment or was he never that guy to begin with?

Yes, 2023 was a peak season, but that doesn't mean we should dismiss the entire thing. His first season in Tampa Bay brought him a new cutter, a new slider, an improved defense, and more curveball usage. Those aren't trivial changes. He's also always been a strong command pitcher, so while his 1.02 WHIP incredibly low and the result of BABIP luck, he also sported a higher BABIP than he had in 2022 and one that is basically in line with his career norms. He's simply a pitcher who pounds the zone with multiple pitches, carried a 4% walk rate and limited hard contact. Those are things he has consistently done, and it wouldn't be a shock if he continued to do them.

Eflin Pitch Mix
Eflin Pitch Mix

As we can see above, Eflin also made clear changes to his arsenal last year. For starters, he upped the usage of his curveball from 20% to 27% and threw it slightly harder, adding a bit more vertical break. He also had far better feel for the pitch, throwing it in the zone 10% more than he did in 2022. He also used it early in the count 58% of the time, after only doing that 44% of the time in 2022. Throwing your best pitch more often and using it to pitch backwards to hitters is a pretty good strategy.

He also changed his slider into a sweeper over the summer, throwing it more often as the year went on and getting way more swinging strikes that he did on his more traditional slider. The cutter was also modified, taking off some velocity and downward bite and adding more horizontal movement. He stopped throwing it up in the zone as much and almost used it like a hard-biting slider to lefties, where it induced lots of weak contact and pop-ups. That left him with a four-seam fastball that he limited to primarily two-strike counts, throwing it 74% of the time with two-strikes as opposed to just 38% in 2022. That's a massive shift and is a big reason why he saw a huge jump in SwStr% on the pitch.

So everything we just discussed was the result of a pitcher and a new team coming together to optimize a pitch mix and approach. We then saw a pitcher who had tantalized with talent go out and have a career best year and now people would rather draft Luzardo who we are hoping does the same thing Eflin has already done? To me, there’s no reason to believe Eflin can’t duplicate what he did last year (perhaps with fewer wins), and while he doesn’t have the upside of the pitchers going ahead of him in drafts, I think he is less volatile and it might be foolish to assume we're done seeing the way the Rays maximize his ability.

Eury Perez - Marlins (ADP: 87, SP25)

In some sense, Eury Perez belongs in the article I ran last time with Bobby Miller and Grayson Rodriguez as young starters with potential ace upside, but I also have far more concerns about Perez. The raw stuff he possesses is great and good enough to make him a clear SP1 in fantasy, but he has to make the changes that Bobby Miller started to last year. Much like Miller, Perez throws his four-seam low in the zone which causes it to get hit hard. Unlike Miller, who was featured in my last article, Perez has yet to shift that approach, throwing his four-seam with just a 40.9% hiLoc (high location), which was 11th percentile in baseball. Considering he throws the pitch 97.5 mph with 82nd-percentile extension and 87th-percentile iVB, it's a pitch that could thrive up in the zone (chart courtesy of Pitcher List).

Eury Perez FF
Eury Perez FF

Instead, it had an underwhelming 10.3% SwStr%, a 56th-percentile PutAway rate, and allowed 48.8% ICR. Yikes.

But, OK, that's a workable pitch. The shape and velocity are good, and it could thrive, but we need to see him make that adjustment. We can't just assume he will. The issue is that it's not the only thing he needs to correct. Both his curve and slider induce lots of week contact, but he can't seem to command them for strikes. The slider was thrown in the zone just 37.9% of the time, while the curve landed in the zone a far worse 29.9% of the time. They missed lots of bats, but they had 35th-percentile and 23rd-percentile called strike rates respectively. If a pitcher can't get called strikes on a breaking ball then hitters are going to start laying off those pitches and sitting on your fastball, which is exactly what happened to Perez in 2023, and considering we worked out that his approach with his four-seam led to lots of hard contact, it wasn't a great combination for him.

Now, despite all of that, he posted a 3.15 ERA and 29% strikeout rate last year. His 4.24 xFIP and 3.94 SIERA saw a little bit more of the concern I was discussing and he did post a 5.08 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 28.6% strikeout rate in 44.1 innings from July 1st on, so major league hitters started to catch on as well.

Now, none of this has me "out" on Perez. I believe approach issues like this happen a lot with young pitchers who can dominate in the minor leagues by saying, “Here’s my best stuff; hit it.” It's possible that Perez never needed to really be precise about the location of his 98 mph fastball, and he may have always gotten hitters to chase his breaking balls. Maybe he was more cautious with throwing breaking balls in the zone to MLB hitters and over-corrected too far. There are so many easily explainable reasons for why his approach was the way it was, and I believe that Perez is capable of being more deliberate with this location to get the most out of his arsenal. But he hasn't done it yet, and so I have a hard time taking him over pitchers who I feel more confident can bring me back legitimately good results.

Kyle Bradish - Orioles (ADP: 89, SP26)

I wrote up Kyle Bradish last year as a breakout candidate, but I didn’t actually expect to be ranking him in my top 20 in 2024. However, Bradish rode his elite slider to a tremendous 2023 season with a 2.83 ERA. But, seriously, his slider is absolutely filthy. Like, one of the best pitches in baseball filthy. He throws the pitch 88 mph with about 13.5 inches of total break, 90th-percentile spin rate, and 90th-percentile induced horizontal break. It had a 17.4% SwStr%, .168 batting average against, and was the best slider in all of baseball, according to Stuff+.

Bradish SL
Bradish SL

In 2023, he added velocity and break to the pitch, and it paid off in a big way, which was why he started throwing it more are the year went on. However, it's not just a putaway pitch; he also throws it 54.7% of the time early in counts. That's why I think there's even another level. He has just a 61.1% strike rate with the pitch, which is 48th-percentile, which is not ideal if he's also throwing it for a strike. I think Bradish can pound the zone a little more with the pitch, keeping it lower, and then also use it to miss bats, and then he could throw it even more often, which would be awesome.

Bradish also made other clear changes in 2023, and some in the middle of the season, let when he cut back on his four-seam usage as the year went on, opting for more reliance on his sinker. While the sinker itself is not a great pitch, it's much better than the four-seam remains and also plays well off the slider, so the fact that he went from 45% four-seam in 2022 to 22% in 2023 is a major step in the right direction. In fact, in the 20 starts he made in 2023 after switching to more sinkers, Bradish posted a 2.31 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 27% strikeout rate in 120.2 innings. That'll play.

If we want to go further, Nick Pollack from Pitcher List pointed out, the movement profile on Bradish's four-seam is actually more of a cutter. He gets just 8th-percentile iVB and below average extension, but he also gets close to three inches of cut action, so what if he actually started using the four-seam like a cutter. it like one? He currently throws the four-seam 42.5% of the time arm-side (so away from lefties), which is 86th-percentile and he also throws it low 23.8% of the time, which is 68th-percentile. What if, instead, he started to jam lefties up and in with it? That could help reduce some of the elevated hard contact rates and also cut down on some of the minor splits issues he has with lefties where he gets fewer swings and misses and gives up a bit more meaningful contact.

At the end of the day, Bradish may have two below average fastballs, but he has two plus breaking balls, including one that is truly elite, and he has a path forward to more sustained success if he alters the approach with his four-seam. Considering he has already down a level that's better than Luzardo, is on a better team than Luzardo, and also has a path to improvement I'm confused as to why he's being drafted after. No, Bradish may not finish as a top 10 starter again, but it would be high unlikely he finishes outside the top 30 (knock on wood for health).

Eric’s Rankings

1) Zach Eflin - SP17
2) Kyle Bradish - SP19
3) Eury Perez - SP25
4) Jesus Luzardo - SP28