It’s a shame that pretty much no one saw this coming. The question, then: What now?
Jordan Lyles, of the Colorado Rockies, has a 2.62 ERA. Yes, it’s after only seven starts (44 2/3 stanzas). But it’s kind of supported, with a 3.41 FIP, a 3.60 xFIP and a 3.76 SIERA. Those figures say that a correction is coming, but not necessarily the kind you’d expect for a pitcher who makes half of his starts at Coors Field and has a 13.6 K%. If you want real absurdity, check out his 1.25 ERA in three home starts (21 2/3 innings).
Surely, you noticed him at some point. But when you cycled through your league’s free-agent list, your eyes jumped from the name before his to the name after it unconsciously. You didn’t even pause, because “Col” or “COL” was next to it. Same here. It’s not exactly an unsound practice.
Why would you add Lyles, then? The BABIP against him is .254. A correction is coming. Coors Field can make one worse, especially if he doesn’t maintain that shiny 5.7 BB% and 7.4% HR/FB. Jeff Sullivan highlighted the reasons that the right-hander must have tempted the Rockies at the time that they dealt for him as well as those that their hopes could be dashed. It’s all downhill from here, isn’t it? How could he put up these great numbers without warning, knowing that anyone in his right mind would be too afraid to add him after the fact?
It’s difficult to call his numbers the results of an easy schedule. His worst start was his first (four runs in five innings), which came in place of an injured Tyler Chatwood on the road against the upstart Miami Marlins, who boast one of baseball’s best home offenses thus far. Lyles hadn’t even made the rotation out of spring training.
There isn’t a whole lot different about his stuff. According to data at Brooks Baseball, Lyles has pitched down in the zone a bit more often, particularly against left-handed hitters, against whom he’s stayed down and away. Smartly, he’s not relying on his once signature curveball quite as often. That offering has suffered a notable dip in swing-and-miss rate, expected given the move to the thinner air of Denver, where its vertical break isn’t as dramatic.
What’s helping the 23-year-old to be successful, then? “There are so many different scenarios,” Lyles told the team’s official site. Chris Chrisman, at Checkswing Roller, summed up many of the reasons, noting that the two-seam fastball, according to FanGraphs’ PITCHf/x data, has become the premier pitch in his arsenal. Rockies manager Walt Weiss cited the two-seamer in quotes to The Denver Post. But Brooks Baseball is labeling his non-four-seam stuff “sinker,” which is what the MLB.com writer called it. Whichever it is, they’re quite similar.
That pitch has stifled hitters this year unlike it has in previous seasons. The opposition has registered a .214 average and .057 ISO against it. Both of Lyles’ fastballs have been effective. Perhaps that’s in part just because he’s throwing them more often. He’s talked about his much improved confidence on a number of occasions. Conviction doesn’t make a pitch better, obviously. But it can lead the pitcher to throw it in any count and situation.
Lyles made it a habit of giving in with the four-seam fastball in past seasons. In 2014, against right-handed batters, he’s been thoroughly unpredictable, no matter the count. He’s done similarly against left-handed batters, with the exception of counts in which the hitter is ahead; then, he’s resorting to the two-seamer/sinker, not the No. 1. While there doesn’t appear to be significant differences in most aspects of his pitches, the mix of them has changed. The chart that represents that change is conceivably a reflection of Lyles’ confidence.
What would be other sources of his assurance? He talked about the stellar D behind him. It’s highlighted by the Gold Glove play of elite defenders Nolan Arenado and Troy Tulowitzki on the left side of the infield. Lyles is also receiving a great deal of run support. Obviously, health is a concern for a couple of their biggest pieces, but as long as the pieces are in place, the picture isn’t distorted. He says that those things have taken a great deal of pressure off him. That can make a big difference, one that doesn’t show up glaringly in statistical data.
A qualifying Rockies pitcher has registered a sub-4.00 ERA nine times in the 21-plus years of the franchise’s existence. (For good measure, Armando Reynoso hit 4.00 on the dot in the team’s inaugural season.) They all occurred in the decade preceding 2014, seven of them in the in the past six campaigns, reflecting the club’s shifting emphasis to fly-ball prevention.
Each of the seven was supported by a solid sub-4.00 xFIP, or close to it. Four of them were accompanied by a K/9 of 7.0 or greater. Three in that subset belong to Ubaldo Jimenez; the other, to Jhoulys Chacin. Chacin made the sub-4.00 group twice, however, the second time coming last season, when he fanned only 5.8 per nine. A sub-30% fly-ball rate played a part in six of the seven, with Jimenez’s 2010 campaign the loner.
What makes Lyles a good bet to be the eighth in seven years? He throws pretty hard, with fastballs that average 92 to 93 mph and top out at around 95. This isn’t Aaron Cook, who sported a lifetime 2.45 GB/FB and turned in one of those sub-4.00 ERA seasons, in 2008. It’s shaping up to be a significantly better version of the type of pitcher Cook was. Yes, Lyles has generated ground balls at what would be a career-high rate of 56.3 percent, a Page 1 rate among qualifiers this season. But it’s the 2.81 GB/FB that really stands out next to his marks in that category of past seasons.
All in all, this may not sound as if it amounts to a lot of upside, so you might wonder why you should care. Colorado pitchers are for dummies or those with great risk tolerance, and the line between them is a big blur. If you aren’t pretty well convinced that Lyles will continue to be successful, then don’t bother. Why put yourself through it?
But if you’re in an NL-only league or a competitive deep mixed league, then you’re looking for these types of edges. In Senior Circuit formats, Lyles is already owned, and those in deep mixed leagues are already taking the plunge – his ownership is 50% in CBS leagues. It’s highly unlikely that anyone would trade for Lyles given the expected skepticism. Be willing to ride the wave where the risk is justified, because this end-of-the-roster hurler stands a good chance to contribute all season.
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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.