What changes did new Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jordan Lyles make in 2018 that led to new found success for the veteran righty?
Literally within hours of trading Ivan Nova to the Chicago White Sox at the Winter Meetings, the Pittsburgh Pirates inked veteran righty Jordan Lyles to a one-year contract. The 28-year-old Lyles comes to Pittsburgh after splitting the 2018 season with the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers. Lyles has also pitched for the Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies.
During his eight-year MLB career Lyles has worked as both a starting and relief pitcher. For much of his career Lyles has been a pitcher that has been maddening for MLB teams and fans alike. Despite possessing great stuff, Lyles has never been able to put it all together.
However, in 2018 he appeared to find something. Lyles posted a career low 4.11 ERA last season and his 4.09 FIP was the second lowest of his career. Furthermore, his 22.6% strikeout rate which was 5.6% higher than any other season of his career.
Lyles also appeared to find a niche last season as a Swiss Army Knife type of reliever. In 40 2/3 innings pitched as a reliever last season Lyles posted a 3.32 ERA, 3.11 FIP, and a 25.9% strikeout rate. As a starter, he posted a solid 19.9% strikeout rate and a 5.5% walk rate. However, his 4.79 ERA left a lot to be desired.
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Despite his overall struggles as a starting pitcher last season, Lyles did turn in strong outings in his final four starts of the season. While these starts came during a stretch from May 31st – June 16th, he allowed three earned runs or less while pitching at least six innings in three of these four starts. After these four starts, Lyles was moved to the bullpen by the Padres and became a shutdown reliever for the Friars and Brew Crew the rest of the season.
It is obvious that at some point last season something clicked with Lyles and he began to pitch better. The question is, what caused things to click? Well, it appears the main driving force behind his success was change in pitch selection and usage.
During the 2018 season Lyles threw his curveball at a career high rate of 28.8%. This continued a trend that started in 2017 when he threw his curve 20.7% of the time. Prior to 2017, Lyles had not thrown his curveball more than 9% of the time since 2013.
A higher curveball usage proved to be a wise choice by Lyles. His curve generated a 29.2% whiff rate in 2018, and opposing batters were limited to a .317 slugging percentage and a .252 wOBA against the pitch.
Lyles also increased changeup usage in 2018. After throwing the pitch 5.9% of the time in 2017, he used it 13.1% of the time in 2018. The pitch helped him find success against left-handed hitters, limiting them to a .301 slugging percentage and a .249 wOBA, while carrying a 25.3% whiff rate.
The success Lyles had against LHHs in 2018 was a big reason for his success. In his career, LHHs have slugged .454 off of Lyles to go with a .354 wOBA. In order to find success in 2019, it will be vital for Lyles to continue to negate LHHs.
There was also a big drop in sinker usage by Lyles. Using his sinker less made the pitch more effective for the veteran. In 2017 opposing hitters slugged an alarming .603 off of his sinker while allowing a wOBA of .419. These struggles came with Lyles throwing the pitch 24.7% of the time.
In 2018, his sinker usage dropped to 14%, causing the effectiveness to go up. Opposing hitters owned just a .212 wOBA while slugging a measly .189 off of the pitch.
With Spring Training looming, the Pirates plan to give Lyles an opportunity to earn the fifth and final spot in their starting rotation. While it is not a terrible idea, it is not the way that the team should utilize Lyles.
Even with a successful change to his pitch repertoire in 2018, Lyles is still best suited for bullpen role with the Pirates. The role he would fit best in would be the Jeanmar Gomez role of 2013 and 2014. Spot starts, long relief appearances, and single inning outings. Using Lyles this way would maximize his potential for the Bucs.