The version of Lyles the Rockies have enjoyed in 2014 looks like a very different pitcher than the hurler stuck on the Houston Astros, where he went 14-29 with a 5.35 earned run average in parts of three seasons. At only 23-years-old, Lyles is a guy the Rockies clearly identified as their kind of pitcher, one they hoped to develop further. But not even the most optimistic prognosticator saw this kind of start in store.
Early in the season, funky stuff happens. That’s why it’s important to take Lyles’ hot start with a grain of salt, at least until he gets a few more innings under his belt. Still, over the course of his career, Lyles has never had a four-start stretch like he’s had with the Rockies, one in which he’s pitched at least 20 innings and allowed eight earned runs or less.
Lyles is in the midst of the best stretch of his career, which means it’s worth finding out if he really is a new and improved pitcher or if his performance is just an early season mirage.
The first big clue that Lyles’ improvement may be real is the change to his repertoire since coming over to the Rockies. The Rockies value groundball outs, and Lyles seems to have taken that command to heart in the early going, throwing his two-seam fastball about 54 percent of the time according to fangraphs.com. That’s 20 percent more often than he threw the pitch in 2013 with Houston.
Manager Walt Weiss had this to say about Lyles’ two-seamer after the right-hander’s sterling performance Saturday.
“Jordan’s been outstanding. He’s really given us a lift in the rotation. And I think the biggest factor has been his two-seamer,” said Weiss. “It’s something he really worked on all spring, his fastball angle and pitching to the bottom of the zone with his two-seam fastball. And you can see those guys beating it into the ground.”
The work seems to have paid off. Batters are hitting just .217 against the pitch this year, compared to .289 against it last season.
Lyles similarly credited the pitch after his strong outing in Saturday’s win.
“A lot of ground balls tonight. We relied on it (his two-seam fastball) heavily. They kept hitting the top of the ball so we stayed with it,” said Lyles. “Overall a good night when you’re seeing that type of contact.”
“Tonight we relied on the fastball, the sinker, and it worked for us.”
Lyles has been putting the Rockies strong infield defense to good use – he got 14 ground-ball outs Saturday, and for the season is inducing ground-balls 56 percent of the time. That’s about eight percent more balls hit on the ground than in 2013, and most of that gain is thanks to his increased reliance on the two-seam fastball.
Take a look at where Lyles’ located his two-seamer against the Phillies’ group of strong left-handed hitters.
There’s some balls up in the zone, but most of Lyles’ offerings were away from the Phillies’ left-handed hitters and down in the zone, right where they ought to be.
Of course, all of this comes with a significant small-sample size caveat, and there are some signals that Lyles’ early success may not be sustainable. As Juan Pablo Zubillaga of RockiesZingers.com points out, the most important thing a pitcher can do at Coors Field is limit home runs. Lyles has allowed just one home-run up to this point, thanks to just a 6.7 percent home-run to fly-balls ratio.
Extreme trends in home-run to fly-ball ratio tend to even themselves out over time, as pitchers have only some control over whether a well-hit fly ball dies on the track or flies over wall. Lyles will likely start giving up home runs up at a rate closer to league average (which is around 10 percent; his career average is 12.6 percent). But Lyles has also never been the kind of pitcher he is now with the Rockies – he might not be this good at keeping balls in the yard, but he could be better than average, and that makes a huge difference at Coors Field.
For now, it’s too early to tell if Lyles’ good start will continue. But the fact that his pitch selection has undergone a radical transformation is a sign that at least some of his gains are for real. His performance (and his two-seamer) have buoyed a Rockies’ rotation that’s been just mediocre to start the season, and if Lyles’ continues pitching well, it would make his acquisition a Tyler Chatwood-level heist for the organization.