What’s behind the struggles of Nick Lodolo?

What’s behind the struggles of Nick Lodolo?

There weren’t many pitchers who got off to a better start in 2023 than Nick Lodolo.

Through three starts, he struck out 27 batters and allowed only four runs in 17 innings. His second start in Philadelphia was among the best outings of any pitcher this season, as he struck out 12 and allowed only three hits in seven shutout innings. Through April 13, Lodolo was third among all pitchers in fWAR. Only five pitchers had a better strikeout rate (36.0%). Life was good for the 25-year-old.

The season has taken a 180-degree turn for Lodolo since that point. In his last four starts and 17.1 innings, the left-hander has given up 20 earned runs and 32 hits, including nine home runs. He’s made it through the fifth inning only once, and his strikeout rate is a mediocre 22.0% during this stretch. He now owns a 6.29 ERA, 4.96 xERA, and 5.88 FIP for the season, while his fWAR has dropped to 0.0 — numbers nobody would’ve imagined after his first three outings of the year.

It’s the worst stretch of Lodolo’s young career and begs an obvious question: what has gone wrong since the beginning of the season? And is it a mere blip on the radar, or is there reason for concern? Let’s try to answer those questions.

A sweet start turned sour

While many things stood out about Lodolo’s first three starts — the strikeouts, the weak contact — his command was the most impressive. He was seemingly throwing pitches exactly where he wanted, painting the edges of the strike zone and avoiding the middle of the strike zone. Through April 13, he ranked 10th among all MLB pitchers with a 106 Location+, a new(ish) metric that measures a pitcher’s ability to throw the ball in ideal spots (100 is league average).

His four-seam fastball command, in particular, was impeccable with a 111 Location+ that ranked 11th among all pitchers. Here’s a heatmap of his four-seamer, his most-used pitch, in his first three starts:

Note that big blue circle in the heart of the zone. He was simply painting the edges of the zone. During this stretch, Lodolo’s four-seamer was tough to square up: it held hitters to a .200 average (.192 xBA) and .260 wOBA (.263 xwOBA) while getting a 35.4% whiff rate. His 36.8% called-strike-plus-whiff rate (CSW%) trailed only Zack Wheeler for the league lead.

With his fastball command on point, it made his best pitch — a sweeping curveball — all the more effective. The breaking ball was virtually unhittable for Lodolo early in the year. Opponents hit only .154 against it (.074 xBA), with a .171 wOBA (.103 xwOBA) and a ridiculous 47.5% whiff rate.

You can probably guess what has gone south in his last few outings: his command. Lodolo isn’t walking batters at an alarming rate, but he is leaving too many pitches over the middle of the plate.

Here’s Lodolo’s four-seam heatmap over his last four starts:

That’s a lot of red in the middle of the zone, and quite the contrast from the first image. Unsurprisingly, Lodolo’s four-seamer has gotten crushed for a .361 average (.313 xBA), .497 wOBA (.418 xwOBA), and four home runs over his last four starts. Meanwhile, the heater’s whiff rate has tanked to 10.0% in that span.

Compounding the poor fastball command is a dip in velocity. Last year, Lodolo’s fastball averaged 94.4 mph. This year, he’s at 93.2 mph. That’s particularly important given how much Lodolo throws his fastball up in the zone. The velocity dip isn’t exclusive to his rough four-start stretch; his average fastball velocity was similar in his first three outings. This helps explain why the Stuff+ on his four-seamer has dropped to 103 from 107 last season, although that’s still better than average (99.2).

When it comes to command, the story is similar for Lodolo’s curveball. He located it well early (100 Location+), but not in his recent outings (88).

Lodolo’s curveball is also getting less movement lately, losing about an inch of drop and break over his last four outings compared to the first three. Accordingly, the Stuff+ on his curveball has fallen to 96 for the season — well below his 2022 mark (115). The league-average Stuff+ on a curveball is 105.5. Lodolo’s breaking ball hit a valley in his last start against the White Sox. It averaged a season-low 42.6 inches of drop and 12.6 inches of break. The latter number was his lowest output since July 31, 2022 — the start before he increased the horizontal movement of his curveball considerably.

The pitch’s spin rate has also fallen by about 80 rpm in his last four outings. That doesn’t seem like much, but it takes his curveball spin from the 85th percentile to the 77th percentile.

The results have, unsurprisingly, dropped off as well. He’s still getting a strong 42.4% whiff rate on the curveball in his last four starts, but he’s leaving it in hittable spots. As a result, Lodolo has given up a .400 average (.239 xBA) and .559 wOBA (.423 xwOBA) on the pitch. When he hasn’t left the curveball over the middle of the plate, he’s still managed to find trouble by hitting batters. Since April 18, no other MLB pitcher has hit more than four batters. Lodolo has hit six batters in that time with his curveball alone (seven in total), all hitting right-handed batters in the legs.

The heatmaps shed some further light:

The differences a little tougher to pick up here than with the fastball. For the most part, Lodolo is still locating his curveball on or near the corner of the strike zone. But there are some distinctions worth noting. Catcher Curt Casali helped illuminate the issues with Lodolo’s curveball in a story from the Enquirer’s Charlie Goldsmith:

“It’s about making that breaking ball more consistent. Eliminating the back-foot ones and the ones that stay out over the plate. Somewhere in the middle of that is the zone for him.”

Looking at the heatmaps side-by-side helps to illustrate Casali’s point.

Notice how the blob has shifted toward right-handed batters. In the second graphic, the right-handed batter’s front leg is almost completely covered. In the first graphic, Lodolo found that sweet spot just off the plate — where hitters would often swing through the pitch, but not so far off that he was plunking hitters (he didn’t hit a single batter in his first three starts).

The mistakes over the plate are a little tougher to spot. But if you look closely, you can see more light-red blobs on the edges of the zone on the left image. On the right, the light-red blobs are in the middle of the zone. It’s hardly surprising that Lodolo has allowed four home runs with his curveball in his last four starts.

Should we be concerned?

Some of Lodolo’s struggles are performance-related. He’ll need to clean up his command to recapture his effectiveness. And ideally, he’ll regain some of his fastball velocity. He’s showed he can still miss bats with diminished velocity when he commands his heater, but it’s a much tougher job when both elements are lacking. Fortunately, he’s already showing signs of cranking up the heat on his fastball. His velocity has hit its highest point this season over his last two outings (93.8 mph).

Ultimately, four starts is a mere snapshot of a season, let alone a career. Command is perhaps the hardest skill for a pitcher to master, and it can fluctuate throughout a season. A subtle difference in mechanics or how a pitcher is feeling physically can impact command substantially. That’s a large reason why Location+ requires at least 400 pitches to stabilize, or hold predictive value. Unless Lodolo’s command issues continue over a longer stretch, there’s no reason to hit the panic button.

More silver linings: although there’s no denying Lodolo hasn’t thrown particularly well of late, he’s also had incredibly poor luck on batted balls. Hitters have a .435 batting average on balls in play against him this season. That’s an astronomical number. Even the league’s worst pitchers don’t allow BABIPs that high over a long period of time. To put it in perspective, the league average pitcher has a .295 BABIP. To further illustrate how wild that number is for Lodolo: FanGraphs’ batted-ball data goes back to 2002 — since that time, no pitcher with at least 30 innings in the first two months of a season has had a higher BABIP.

The Reds’ lousy infield defense has played a role, too. With Lodolo on the mound, the infield has a collective -4 outs above average, tied for the second-worst mark of any pitcher in baseball. Allowing a lot of hard contact will also inflate a pitcher’s BABIP. But Lodolo has also seen an abnormal rate of batted balls find holes, even before his recent slump. Batters had a .415 BABIP against him in his first three starts. The highest BABIP for any qualifying pitcher over a full season is .363 by Kevin Gausman in 2022 (and he still finished ninth in AL Cy Young voting). The highest career BABIP for any pitcher since 2002 is .345 (Mitch Keller). Long story short: Lodolo’s BABIP will normalize over time, which will help his results.

If there’s room for concern with Lodolo, it’s his ongoing struggles against right-handed batters — an issue that has occurred over a larger sample size. The southpaw has dominated left-handed hitters in his brief big-league career. Righties have been a different story. Here are his career splits:

  • vs. LHH: .155/.241/.239, .223 wOBA, 38.0 K%, 6.3 BB%
  • vs. RHH: .281/.372/.484, .373 wOBA, 28.0 K%, 8.3 BB%

Of the 22 homers he’s allowed in his career, 21 have been hit by right-handed hitters. He also has a significantly lower ground-ball rate and a significantly higher hard-hit rate against righties. Lodolo will need to continue to develop his changeup to help combat the huge platoon split. His fastball-curveball combo can still be effective against righties when his command is sharp — just look at his strikeout rate. But a quality third offering would give Lodolo another weapon: an off-speed that moves away from righties instead of toward them.

Final Thoughts

While Lodolo is going through a rough stretch right now, the command issues he’s dealing with aren’t particularly abnormal — especially for a young pitcher. The bad BABIP luck will even out over time, too. He does need to improve against right-handed hitters, but that’s not an issue that suddenly began on April 18. It’s something he can hopefully learn to do over time. Opposing teams will certainly keep stacking their lineups with righties, giving him no shortage of opportunities to hone his craft.

But there are already many things Lodolo does well. His low, wide arm angle makes it tough for hitters to pick up the baseball. He misses bats at a high clip and throws strikes, ranking in the top 25% of all pitchers in strikeout, whiff, and walk rates. Those are all things a pitcher can control and are highly correlated to long-term success. Lodolo has a lot going for him, and he should continue to get better. After all, he barely has more than 200 professional innings and only 26 major-league starts under his belt.

The path to success as an MLB starting pitcher is rarely smooth. Lodolo is facing adversity now after tasting some success, and there are clear areas for improvement. But there are still many reasons to believe he has a bright future ahead.

Featured photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire

Matt Wilkes

Matt Wilkes got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Columbus. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

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