Using the benefit of hindsight, columnist Richard Justice of MLB.com recently ranked his top-12 trade deadline deals. Right near the top of that list at #2 was the swap engineered by David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers that brought Jordan Lyles over from division-rival Pittsburgh. Lyles has unexpectedly become the de facto ace of Milwaukee’s starting rotation, but Stearns apparently wasn’t the only exec eyeing up the right-hander in July.
According to Robert Murray of The Athletic, Stearns’ previous employer, the Houston Astros, also expressed interest in Jordan Lyles in advance of the trade deadline. As Murray writes, the Brewers “swoop[ed] in at the 11th hour” to steal Lyles right out from under Jeff Luhnow’s nose, sending relief prospect Cody Ponce to Pittsburgh to complete the transaction. After losing out on Lyles, the Astros wound up pivoting to Zack Greinke, so things ended up working out okay for everyone.
Lyles believed that poor pitch framing was partially to blame for his struggles in Pittsburgh, and Slingin’ Stearns agreed that his results towards the end of his tenure with the Pirates were more a result of poor luck rather than a true representation of his performance level. Teaming up with top-level framers Yasmani Grandal and Manny Pina has no doubt helped Lyles since returning to the Cream City, but even beyond that, his turnaround has been nothing short of astounding. In 10 starts, he has logged 53.2 innings with a 2.35 ERA. Only four starters in the National League have thrown at least 50 innings with a lower earned run average than Lyles since he joined the Brewers on July 29th. His adjusted ERA- of 53 with Milwaukee rates as 47% better than the league average. Based upon his runs allowed per nine, Jordan has generated more wins above replacement — 1.9 RA9-WAR — in the past two months with Milwaukee than he previously had in any full season of his career.
The Brewers let Lyles walk after declining his contract option at the end of last season, but it appears as though they may have designs on keeping him around after his latest run of success in the Menomonee Valley. Per Murray’s sources, Milwaukee has interest in re-signing Lyles following the conclusion of this season (and hopefully, playoff run). Added Stearns, “I think his comfort level here would certainly yield some conversations in the offseason.”
The odd thing is, Lyles hasn’t really done anything notably different since coming to Milwaukee. His strikeout rate has actually dropped two points since his time in Pittsburgh (down to 22.9%), and he’s walking basically the same amount of batters (9.1%). His 9.3% swinging-strike rate is down nearly a point from his first half with the Bucs. Lyles hasn’t meaningfully altered his pitch mix; he’s shelved his sinker (which he was only throwing 3.1% of the time) and has nominally increased his slider usage while throwing fewer changeups, but he’s still predominantly using his four-seamer up high in the zone and curveball down low, deploying that combo 83.1% of the time after leaning on it 80.4% of the time in Pittsburgh.
As he discussed with Murray, Lyles’ trust in the game-calling abilities of Grandal and Pina has probably made the most signifcant difference since the trade. Since coming to Milwaukee, Lyles has been more willing to work backwards to hitters, upping his first-pitch curveball usage to both left-handed hitters and righties. His fastball has become his go-to offering when he’s ahead of lefties, including a 59% usage rate with two strikes. Lefties have hit only .210 against Lyles since the trade, including a mere .170 against his four-seamer. According to Fangraphs’ linear weights, Lyles’ heater was worth -3.5 runs in his 17 starts for the Pirates. In 10 starts with Milwaukee, it has generated +8.2 runs of value.
Lyles has slashed his home run rate from 1.75 HR/9 down to a below-average but still pedestrian 1.34 HR/9 with Milwaukee, but his hard contact allowed has actually increased four points since the trade, up to 41.9%. Still, he’s seen a significant increase in his percentage of infield fly balls induced (currently at 13.4%), and he’s seen a general decrease in his rolling expected weighted on-base average with Milwaukee, as evidenced by the above chart (courtesy of Baseball Savant). The yellow line represents the split before and after the trade.
Field Independent Pitching, which is calculated based upon strikeouts, walks, and home run rates, doesn’t exactly buy Lyles’ “breakout” with the Brewers. Where his ERA currently reads like an ace, Lyles’ FIP- of 98 paints him as more of a league-average starter for Milwaukee. Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average, which is a more complex and generally more accurate run estimator that also accounts for quality of contact among several other factors, does buy into Lyles’ performance though, or at least to a much greater degree. A DRA- of 81 views Jordan’s work with Milwaukee as 19% better than league average, suggesting that his actual performance is along the lines of a good #2 or #3 starter even when accounting for good luck, etc.
Though he’s now pitching in his ninth MLB season, Lyles still hasn’t even turned 29 years old yet. His track record — a career 5.11 ERA and -0.8 RA9-WAR in more than 900 innings — doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence, but if the Brewers are indeed interested in retaining his services beyond this season, it suggests that at some level, the front office does buy into his improved performance during this pennant race and they believe he can sustain an above-average level of performance going forward. There’s little doubt that he’ll beat the one-year, $2.05 mil deal he earned from Pittsburgh the last time he was a free agent, but given the success that he’s experienced in Milwaukee versus what he’s done at the other stops during his career, as well as the issues that the team endured with their starting rotation this season, it perhaps should come as no surprise that David Stearns is reportedly hoping to keep veteran Jordan Lyles around.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Savant