Nick Lodolo Had a Potentially Defining Moment

Nick Lodolo
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Rarely can we point to an exact moment in time that turned us into who we are today. Our current selves are a culmination of all the experiences we’ve had since birth, good or bad, and their immediate and enduring effects. Motivational speakers claim to recall pivotal, life-altering instances with vivid detail, but not everyone has a story dramatic enough to earn themselves a personal soapbox.

The same goes for baseball players. There is no single game, inning, or plate appearance that molded Mike Trout into the comically talented slugger he is now. One day he was a modest teenager from New Jersey, and seemingly the next a generational hitter. In reality, thousands upon thousands of moments are scattered in between, but you can’t just walk up to one of them, isolate it, and declare it “the game Mike Trout became Mike Trout.”

Which is sort of what I’m going to do with Nick Lodolo.

Don’t get me wrong; I won’t spend the entire article trying to prove that, yes, this is when Lodolo took the next step. In fact, I have no idea if it’s something he’ll even hold onto. Young pitchers tinker with their approaches and repertoires all the time, and what I’m about to describe might be one of many fleeting changes. But there’s a good chance it’s significant. Lodolo, after this vaguely worded moment, became a noticeably better version of himself. And I don’t think the ways in which he improved came together on a whim; they make too much sense.

The date is August 6, 2022. The Reds are visiting the Brewers for what is about to be a low-stakes game; Fox is broadcasting it, sure, but one of the two teams doesn’t have much to fight for. Lodolo is representing that anemic squad for what is the ninth start of his career. He fails to impress on a national stage, allowing three runs in 4.2 innings. But there’s something different about him today, something that no box score can pick up:

That’s Lodolo’s curveball. It’s his signature pitch, a gem that brought him fame and recognition as a prospect. You can see why. Not only does it have incredible side-to-side movement, but its low arm angle also distorts and deceives. From Christian Yelich‘s perspective, that curveball seems destined to end up inside, as a ball. Instead, it veers right into the zone, freezing him and netting Lodolo a free strike.

Here’s the really fun part: It turns out Lodolo’s curveball that day was even more difficult to pick up than usual. Specifically, it featured two additional inches of horizontal movement compared to his season average (courtesy of Brooks baseball):

Notice that sharp downward slope mid-season? The start point is a game against the Orioles on July 31; the end point is one week later, the very game we just described. Out of nowhere, in a short amount of time, Lodolo supercharged his curveball from an already great offering to an incomparable one. The only curveball that’s even remotely similar to his upgraded version is Jimmy Herget‘s. Like Lodolo’s, Herget’s curve has a lot of horizontal movement and almost no vertical drop. The thing, though, is that Herget’s averaged around 75 mph last season. And while Lodolo did sacrifice some velocity in order to generate greater movement, he merely went from sitting 82-84 mph to sitting 79-81.

In sum, Lodolo’s curveball moves far more to the right than expected and stays elevated far longer than expected, all while maintaining an above-average velocity. That’s… one of the best pitches in the game, period? He had a 70-grade breaking ball in his back pocket before he even stepped foot on a big-league mound, but over the course of the season — or one start, really — it evolved into arguably an 80-grade offering. Two inches aren’t much in normal life — a rounding error in some cases. In baseball, they’re worth dedicating multiple paragraphs to.

But this isn’t only about how Lodolo’s curveball went all super saiyan. That ordinary summer baseball game wouldn’t be a defining moment without another change or two. Before diving into them, some context is necessary. Lodolo relies on two fastballs: a four-seam fastball and a sinker. Often, it’s tough to tell the two apart. Their movement and velocity ranges overlap, meaning his four-seamer can behave like his typical sinker, or vice versa. Understandably, this gives baseball databases headaches. (baseball savant didn’t display both of Lodolo’s fastballs until well into last season.)

I’m beginning to ramble, so let’s get on with it. Early in 2022, the dividing lines between Lodolo’s two fastballs were completely blurred, more so than they are now. At some point in the season, though, a proper distinction began to form. Based on the flow of this article, you can guess when that happened:

There it is again: that one start against the Brewers. Consider the period of chaos that precedes it, the line representing sinker movement fluctuating between outings. Then consider the period of stability that succeeds it, the same line maintaining a constant distance between the line representing Lodolo’s four-seam movement. Granted, those early movement readings are easily explained by the lack of pitches thrown; just look at those massive error bars. But the aforementioned start also marks the beginning of his increased sinker usage:

From what I can tell, Lodolo didn’t alter his sinker in any way mid-season. There’s a slight change in spin axis that occurred sometime in July, but it’s within the margin of error. What I buy is that around the time he faced the Brewers in August, he became comfortable with throwing it. Think about it: He completed three starts in April before he landed on the IL with a back strain, which sidelined him for three months. Upon returning, it might have taken a couple of outings to get back in sync, to fine-tune his mechanics and redevelop the feel for his pitches. Timing-wise, early August makes sense as the moment he truly recovered. Hey, maybe his revamped curveball is actually the curveball he had all along!

An uptick in sinker usage also coincided with the development of a clear count-based approach. As the season went on, Lodolo bought himself favorable counts with well-placed sinkers, then went for the kill with his curveball or four-seam fastball with two strikes. This tracks with what we know about pitching. Sinkers aren’t adept at inducing swings-and-misses, but they are great at getting batters to take, which makes them perfect for called strikes. Meanwhile, batters are generally happy to see a four-seam fastball and will swing at one given the opportunity. The trick, then, is to present them a four-seamer that looks appealing… but actually isn’t. Fastballs up in the zone fulfill that role. And while Lodolo doesn’t have plus movement on his four-seamer, he frequently climbed the ladder last season to great success.

Finally, there’s a mechanical adjustment that ties everything together. Here’s a screenshot of Lodolo right before pitch release, back in April:

And here’s another screenshot, this time from an outing in September:

Right away, you’ll notice that Lodolo’s arm slot is lower in the second image. But the important detail is its positioning on the mound. At the beginning of last season, his front foot relative to the rubber was in the middle, perhaps a tiny bit shifted towards the third base side. Contrast that with what we see toward the end of last season: his front foot is firmly on the first base side of the rubber! He’s releasing the ball further to his left, thereby creating an exaggerated horizontal approach angle. It’s an uncomfortable look for hitters, especially lefties.

That’s great and all, but a wider and slightly lower release point probably helped Lodolo coax more movement out of his curveball, and it’s probably why he scooted over to his left in the first place. You can’t throw a Lodolo-esque breaking ball from Clayton Kershaw‘s arm slot; it’s physically impossible. A pitcher’s delivery informs what kinds of pitches he can throw. There’s a reason why most everyone with a sweeper goes three-quarters, sometimes sidearm. Lodolo needn’t drop his throwing arm by much, because a greater horizontal release point can replicate the feel of a lower angle, and feel is what matters. In his first start, his horizontal release point was measured at 3.03 feet. In his last start, it was measured at 3.66 feet. Somebody did their homework, alright.

Rookie seasons come and go over the years. How memorable each one becomes usually depends on how well the rookie in question performed. We’ll likely remember Julio Rodriguez‘s or Adley Rutschman‘s debuts for a while, but not so much Riley Greene‘s. That said, there’s an equally important but less appreciated barometer for how significant a rookie season is and should be: the potential shown throughout it. Lodolo didn’t have the most statistically appealing debut. But by the end of it, he emerged a far better pitcher than he was at its start. And I keep coming back to that one random game in Milwaukee, in which he casually showed up with a gargantuan breaking ball. If he ever attains long-term big-league success, we might end up going back and labeling it the “start Nick Lodolo became Nick Lodolo” — and with evidence to back it up.

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