Every team in baseball will be on the market for pitching depth this winter, our Milwaukee Brewers included. Some organizations can afford to shop in the upper echelon of free agency and will pursue the likes of Dallas Keuchel or Patrick Corbin, but it’s more likely that the Brewers will continue their search for undervalued arms and potential free agent bargains, like Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley were in 2018. There ought to be plenty of upside out there for Milwaukee’s scouting and analytics departments to uncover and attempt to fit into their run prevention system, and one hurler who could fit that mold may already have a head start on a successful tenure in the Cream City.
Jordan Lyles was picked up off waivers by Milwaukee on August 5th, and he performed pretty well while being used sparingly out of the bullpen down the stretch. He logged 16.1 innings across 11 appearances after joining the Menomonee Valley Nine, posting a 3.31 ERA during the final two months of the season. That, after working to a 4.29 ERA in 24 games (eight starts) and 71.1 innings with San Diego to start the year. He earned a modest $750K base salary in 2018, and David Stearns and company are now faced with the decision of whether to exercise Lyles’ $3.5 mil team option for 2019, or pay him a $250K buyout and allow him to hit the open market.
It’s fair to say that to this point, Lyles’ career has been disappointing. He was a first-round pick by Houston all the way back in 2008 and was considered a top-100 prospect for a couple years before debuting in the big leagues in 2011. But in eight seasons since then, he’s never been able to produce even a league-average ERA across a full year of work, topping out with a 98 ERA+ in 2014 with Colorado. Baseball Prospectus’ DRA-based WARP pegs his career value at a whopping 7.1 wins below replacement level.
“He’s always had a really good arm,” Stearns told reporters after he added Lyles to the fold in August. The right-hander was was still with Houston at the beginning of Stearns’ tenure with that org before getting dealt to the Rockies, so there is a level of familiarity between the executive and player. This version Jordan Lyles, however, is different - and far more compelling - than the one who pitched nearly 700 MLB innings of 5.43 ERA baseball while battling a spate of injuries from 2011-2017.
For the first seven years of his career, Lyles was a pitcher who didn’t miss a ton of bats and relied mostly on inducing ground balls to get outs. His primary offerings were his low-90s four-seam fastball and sinker along with a slider, and he’d also mix in a changeup and curveball. None of his pitches graded out particularly well at all and his control seemed to erode as time passed by, with his walk rate increasing in each season from 2011-16. Lyles continued to receive opportunities based on his pedigree and perceived potential, but after posting a career-worst 7.75 ERA in 69.2 innings with the Rockies and Padres in 2017, it was clear something needed to change.
So, when Lyles reported to camp with the Padres this past spring, he did so with a revamped approach to attacking batters, led in large part by a new curveball. From 2011-2017, Lyles averaged 80.67 MPH on a curveball that featured 6.72 inches of vertical drop. It wasn’t an effective offering (more than 22 runs below average in seven seasons) so he tempered how often he threw it, keeping its usage around 14-15%. But in 2018, Lyles showed up throwing an 83-86 MPH curveball (84.16 MPH average) that had an additional half-inch of vertical drop (-7.37 inches) than the previous version. During his stint with the Padres, Lyles upped the use of his harder, sharper-breaking curveball to nearly 27%. With the curve now as his most trusted secondary pitch, Jordan started to put his slider in the back pocket more often and dialed his use of the pitch back from 17.77% down to 10.07%.
Lyles was strictly a starter in the early part of his career, but moved into more of a swingman role in 2016 and has stayed in that capacity since. The move to the bullpen didn’t immediately pay off in terms of increased fastball velocity, but that was another part of Lyles’ game that improved in 2018. His average heater crossed the plate at 92.91 MPH from 2011-17, with his typical sinker registering at 92.30 MPH. To begin 2018, Lyles was throwing his four-seamer at 94.51 MPH. Like many other pitchers across the league, Jordan moved away from throwing his sinker (which jumped up to 93.56 MPH) quite so often; he dropped his usage from 26.77% pre-2018 to 12.54% with San Diego this season while upping his amount of four-seamers by four percent (to 36.22%).
These changes did help produce some modest improvement in San Diego for Lyles, at least over his disastrous 2017 campaign. He shaved three runs off his ERA and his 9.5% swinging-strike rate during those 71.1 innings as a Padre would have already been a career-best. But it wasn’t until arriving in Milwaukee, and receiving the opportunity to work with Derek Johnson, that Lyles truly elevated his game.
Lyles doubled down on his curveball-heavy approach under Johnson, bumping his usage up to 36.80%. In fact, he threw more curves (99) than four-seamers (89) during his 11 appearances with Milwaukee. He also moved around his location, throwing it both below the zone and to his arm-side with greater frequency in an attempt to generate more swings-and-misses. Pitch Info graded Lyles’ curve at +1.1 runs in his 71.1 innings in San Diego; after adjusting his frequency an location with the Brewers, his curve was valued at +0.7 runs in only 16.1 innings.
Jordan’s fastball ticked up even more during his short sample with Milwaukee, averaging 95.34 MPH. His vertical movement increased from 8.24 inches pre-2018 to 9.10 inches with San Diego to 9.44 inches with Milwaukee, meaning that four-seamer had a much greater “rising” appearance with the Brewers than it ever had previously. He was also encouraged to work “up” in the zone with far greater frequency with both his fastball and sinker.
Lyles didn’t really vary how often he was using his fastball and sinker with Milwaukee, but his improved velocity and differing locations led to impressive results. Lyles more than doubled the whiff rate on his four-seamer from his work in San Diego (from 7.07% to 17.98%), and it was nearly the same story with his sinker (7.04% to 12.82%). His ground ball rate fell to a career-low 39.5%, but batters hit only about .150 against both offerings. On a per-pitch basis, both his four-seamer and sinker generated more value during his stint with Milwaukee than at any previous point during his career.
He spent only a short time with our local nine in 2018, but Lyles has never before thrived like he did during his stint with the Brewers to end the season. He has never come close to approaching the overall 13.2% swinging strike rate he produced, and his 31% strikeout rate for Milwaukee (20:9 K/BB ratio) is nearly twice that of his 16.1% career average. Deserved Run Average feels that across the span of his career, Lyles has been 35% worse than your run-of-the-mill hurler (135 DRA-); while with Milwaukee, DRA viewed Lyles’ work as 43% better than average (57 DRA-).
Jordan Lyles was nothing short of outstanding after getting claimed on waivers by the Brewers, and though it’s fair to apply the small sample size caveat, he’s sure to generate plenty of interest if he hits the open market. But given that he already has a head start on becoming another “Derek Johnson special,” it might be wise for Slingin’ Stearns not to let him get that far. Lyles’ profile and ability to work multiple innings are tremendous fits within Milwaukee’s run prevention system, and for the inexpensive cost of a mere $3.5 mil, he may finally be able to put together his long-awaited breakout in 2019 while wearing “Milwaukee” across his chest.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Brooks Baseball