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The low-risk, high-reward addition for the Pirates

Jordan Lyles brings an improved pitching style on a bargain deal.

Detroit Tigers v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

In the midst of all-star trade rumors and talk of mega free agents courting teams (and vice versa), the Pittsburgh Pirates, as they usually do, made a minor free agent signing, inking right-handed swing-man Jordan Lyles to a one-year deal.

Mostly known for the failed expectations from his prospect days with the Astros, Lyles has bounced around as a bottom-of-the-barrel arm to a pitching staff, spending time with the Rockies, Padres, and Brewers in the past two seasons.

From 2011 to 2017, Lyles’ career had seen a treacherous ride. He only posted an ERA below 5.00 once, a FIP below four once, and had been worth one win or more in a season once. He bottomed out in 2017, posting a 6.94 ERA and 5.84 FIP in 46.2 innings before being DFA’d by the Rockies. He found a home late in the season with a Padres pitching staff desperate in need of innings, but subsequently allowed 24 earned runs in 23 innings across five starts. Quite the cherry on top.

Despite the struggles of 2018, Lyles found himself pitching in the big leagues again in 2018, once again with the Padres to start the season. He pitched out of the bullpen in the first month of the season, filling the role of “Mr. Versatile.” After fair results (3.66 ERA, 4.0 FIP in 19.2 innings), Lyles received a second crack as a starter. He caught the attention of many in his second start, putting up the highest game score of his career in a seven inning, one hit, zero run performance with 10 strikeouts.

Lyles would go on to make a stretch of eight straight starts, performing serviceably. But after an elbow injury that kept him sidelined roughly a month he had to make a return back to the bullpen. He wouldn’t pitch in the role with the Padres for very long though, as after his third game back he was acquired via waiver acquisition by the Brewers. This seemed like the ideal fit from the beginning, as the creative usage by Craig Counsell with his pitching staff would allow Lyles to work in multiple roles, something that he was accustomed to.

It was a small sample size, but those 16.1 innings Lyles pitched late in the season with the Brewers were quite interesting (2.57 DRA). Notably, a lot changed with his pitch repertoire. He started throwing more four-seamers with less sinkers, along with adding some curveballs and subtracting some changeups.

How he pitched changed a bit too. He started throwing four-seamers, curveballs, and changeups in the zone less often, while throwing sinkers in the zone more.

Jordan Lyles Zone% By Pitch Type

Team FA Zone% SI Zone% CU Zone% CH Zone%
Team FA Zone% SI Zone% CU Zone% CH Zone%
Padres 61.50% 48.10% 46.90% 38.40%
Brewers 57.10% 55.30% 38.80% 30.00%
2018 Baseball Savant

Going after hitters with the sinker seemed to do the trick (89.3 MPH Exit Velocity allowed with the Padres, 87.2 MPH Exit Velocity with the Brewers). The biggest difference came in going out of the zone with the four-seamer more often. The swinging-strike rate on the pitch with each team was night and day, coming in at 6.9 percent with the Padres and 18.7 percent with the Brewers, perhaps explaining the jump in strikeout production (20.7 percent vs 31.7 percent).

The role Lyles will play for the Pirates in 2019 remains unclear. For the moment, he seems like a good candidate to be a flippable piece at the trade deadline for the Pirates if he can string together more success, whether that be as a starter or a reliever. Though it is worth pointing out that he’ll have a legitimate shot to start the season in the Pirates’ rotation. An “opener” role was even brought into discussion.

“If Jordan, Steven, Nick show that we’re better served using an opener, then we’ll go with an opener,” Huntington said. “But perfect world, one of these young men, Jordan with the inside track, but one of these young men will take that starter spot and nail it down and pitch very well.”

The Pirates signing of Jordan Lyles comes with little risk and a potential for upside via a mid-season trade. The sustainability of his successful improvements in 2018 is the only question.

Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.