With the Trade Deadline mere hours away, the Milwaukee Brewers rotation is not in great shape. After injuries to emerging ace Brandon Woodruff and Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacin, along with the uncertain status of Gio Gonzalez, along with the collapse of Corbin Burnes, along with—well, you get the picture—the Brewers are down to two dependable starting pitchers in Chase Anderson and Zach Davies. The club finds itself not only needing a quality starting pitcher, but also an average Joe who can throw 90 to 100 pitches every five days without his arm falling off to replace “TBD” on the schedule. Enter Jordan Lyles.
The Brewers sent Cody Ponce to Pittsburgh in return for the veteran right-hander, who will be donning the navy blue for the second time in two seasons. Drafted by the Astros in the first round of the 2008 draft, it’s been a bit of a disappointing career for Lyles, who has managed just a 5.29 ERA across 851 innings at the MLB level. However, he did show signs of finally putting it together last season, when he posted a 104 ERA- and 101 FIP-. After joining the Brewers, he put up a fantastic 57.5 DRA- in 11 relief outings, hinting that a breakout was finally on the horizon.
Instead of exercising his club option for 2019, Milwaukee cut Lyles loose at season’s end, and he landed in Pittsburgh. In 17 starts this season, Lyles is sporting a 5.36 ERA and 4.81 FIP, both of which are below-average. There are some reasons for optimism; he’s striking out a career-best 24.9% of the hitters he has faced, and after posting a career-high swinging strike rate of 10.3% last season, he has sustained it with a 10.2% mark this year. Furthermore, Lyles’ DRA of 4.45 is actually about eight percent better than league-average. His curveball is as nasty as ever; he’s generating more spin with the pitch than ever before, and it has a strikeout rate of 35.8%.
Looking at the overall numbers can be a bit misleading, however. It’s been a tale of two seasons for Lyles, and to get a clearer picture of how his 2019 campaign has progressed, one should put a star next to a May 17th start against the San Diego Padres. Lyles fired seven dominant innings, striking out twelve and allowing just run to lower his season ERA to 1.97. He looked like the bargain of the offseason, a pitcher who could anchor Pittsburgh’s rotation if they remained in the playoff hunt or someone they could cash in for prospects if the team sputtered.
That’s when things started to go downhill. Lyles has been knocked around to the tune of a 9.57 ERA in his last nine starts, including two in which he failed to complete two full innings. What happened?
David Stearns explained why Lyles’ recent struggles didn’t scare the Brewers away and why they believe there are better days ahead. Here’s what he had to say, per MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy:
“As we looked at the entirety of the season, both earlier and the more recent outings, we think that the underlying aspects of his performance -- what he is actually doing on the mound -- have remained fairly consistent. So we think that he is a quality addition to the club and we look forward to him contributing down the stretch here.
“I think this happens from time to time for pitchers throughout the course of a season. It can steamroll a little bit. Clearly, Jordan has had a couple of challenging outings over the last month. We look at it as likely he’s had his three worst outings clumped together here. But the stuff is still strong. He’s still executing his pitches. And we believe that he can have success over the next two months of the season.”
A peek at the stats confirms most of what Stearns said. Many of the positive traits that the “good” Lyles displayed didn’t go away when the “bad” Lyles surfaced.
Jordan Lyles, first eight starts vs last nine
|First eight starts
|Last nine starts
Lyles didn’t stop throwing strikes, and he didn’t start walking more hitters. His strikeout rate dropped a touch, but it has remained better than league-average, and his swinging strike rate has increased. Opposing hitters were making the same amount of contact. That meshes with Stearns’ comment that the stuff hasn’t changed and that the underlying aspects of his performance have remained consistent.
Lyles has also suffered from his fair share of bad luck. The “good” Lyles was due for a bit of regression. His .252 BABIP, 3.36 FIP vs 1.97 ERA, and .296 opponent xwOBA vs .252 wOBA hinted at this, along with the fact that he was getting away with a hard hit rate of 41.7%. However, he still looked to be a very solid starter, even with regression factored in. Instead, he over-regressed. In his last nine starts, Lyles has suffered from a sky-high .400 BABIP, which is highly unlucky regardless of how much hard contact he may have allowed. His opponent xwOBA of .357 is 99 points lower than his actual opponent wOBA of .456. He has also been the victim of a 27.9% HR/FB rate, which is significantly higher than the league-average 15.1% and his career mark of 13.4%. While Lyles has certainly pitched poorly since May 23rd, he hasn’t been as awful as the results would indicate. It’s been a case of everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. Like Stearns suggested, it would appear as though his three worst outings of the entire season have come in the same month, rather than being spread out over the course of the year.
Of course, bad luck alone does not account for such dramatic struggles. In his first eight starts, Lyles threw his four-seam fastball at a 44.1% clip, and he did a fantastic job of locating it at the top of the strike zone. The pitch held opposing hitters to a .275 wOBA. The curveball remained his money pitch, but the increased effectiveness of his heater was also playing a large role in his success.
In his last nine starts, Lyles has ramped up his fastball usage to 55%. Unfortunately, his command has taken a step back in that span. He has still been throwing more fastballs at the top of the zone than anywhere else, but he’s also been leaving plenty of fastballs over the heart of the plate at the belt. Opponents have been teeing off on the pitch lately to the tune of a .472 wOBA. Per FanGraphs’ linear pitch weights, it went from being his best offering (4.5 runs above average) to his worst (-8.3 runs).
Again, bad luck has played a role here, but Lyles hasn’t done himself many favors by throwing more hittable pitches over the past two months. While his hard contact rate has increased by only one percentage point, opposing hitters have been hitting line drives on 24.4% of balls in play compared to 17.5% earlier in the season. Lyles gets his swings and misses up in the zone. When his fastball leaks down and over the heart of the plate, opponents don’t miss it, and they hit it hard.
The swing and miss stuff is clearly still there, and his walk rate isn’t egregiously high. Rather, the issue appears to be inconsistent command within the strike zone, particularly with his fastball. Perhaps leaning a bit less on his four-seamer, as well as improved command of the pitch, will lead to more positive results.
There’s still hope for Lyles. He was a league-average pitcher as recently as last season, and he has put his potential on display earlier in the current season. Considering that he still possesses as much upside as ever, it makes sense that Stearns opted to bring him back into the fold rather than giving starts to someone like Aaron Wilkerson or an unproven prospect like Trey Supak.
However, this is nothing new for Lyles. His tantalizing potential is the reason he’s been able to carve out spots on big-league rosters for nine years despite a career RA9-WAR of -2.6. Multiple teams have taken a flyer on him in hopes of cashing in on his potential with no success, and it could be more of the same in Milwaukee.
In all likelihood, Jordan Lyles is somewhere in between the two extremes we’ve seen from him this season. He should be capable of working five innings in most of his starts with mediocre results, and maybe he’ll twirl the occasional gem when everything is clicking. Considering the current state of Milwaukee’s rotation, that would be an upgrade, albeit one that isn’t flashy. Depending on what other deadline moves Slingin’ Stearns has in the cards and how long it will take the rotation to return to full health, Lyles could potentially shift to a relief role later in the season, a role in which he thrived last year. And as long as the stuff is still there, the potential for a breakout remains.
This checks all of the boxes for a typical David Stearns move. It’s low-risk with the potential for high-reward. It’s a first step toward upgrading a rotation that needs to be stabilized. And if recent reports are any indication, this won’t be the only move he makes to upgrade the Milwaukee Nine’s roster.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus