Lyles has inside track at Pirates' rotation
PITTSBURGH -- The Brewers saw something in Jordan Lyles when they claimed him off waivers last August. Milwaukee general manager David Stearns pointed to the right-hander's increased velocity and modified pitch mix coming out of the bullpen. Not long after Lyles joined the Brewers' bullpen, he approached their analytics staff with a question.
"Hey, what do you have for me?"
Armed with data from Milwaukee's front office and a mentality that he developed early last season, Lyles transformed into the pitcher who caught Pittsburgh's attention this winter. He posted a 3.31 ERA with 22 strikeouts in only 16 1/3 innings of relief for the Brewers, and the Pirates think he's now set up for success in their starting rotation.
"We'll go to Spring Training, try to win a rotation spot. Obviously if I don't, I've got to go to the bullpen," Lyles said. "There's no other options. I'm not going to turn around and play third base."
The Pirates created an opening in their rotation by trading right-hander Ivan Nova to the White Sox at the Winter Meetings. Not long after, word surfaced that they had agreed to sign Lyles to a one-year, $2.05 million contract.
At PiratesFest, general manager Neal Huntington described Lyles as "Plan A" for the last spot in Pittsburgh's rotation. Nick Kingham and Steven Brault are the Bucs' backup plans. "Plan D" would be to use an opener, Huntington said. Top prospect Mitch Keller could be ready to join the staff at some point this summer.
But for now, Lyles has the inside track.
The 28-year-old has spent most of his career as a starter. Lyles came up through the Astros' system with an old-school mindset: Throw strikes. Put the ball on the ground. You have to turn over the lineup to pitch deep into games, so don't show your changeup the first time through.
In a sense, he was getting in his own way by being conservative and taking pitches off the table. That changed when Lyles broke camp last year in the Padres' bullpen.
"Just keeping that mindset of 'three outs right now.' It doesn't matter the next three outs, the next six outs," Lyles said. "That's where I fell into trouble my first go-around as a starter, trying to set up lineups and worrying about how I'm going to get them out a time or two down the road."
The Brewers showed Lyles how opposing hitters were beating him, digging into the numbers and formulating a plan of attack. They encouraged Lyles to throw his best pitches more often, a philosophy that also benefited Pirates starter Jameson Taillon (among many others) last season.
The change in Lyles' pitch mix was noticeable last season. He threw his four-seam fastball 34 percent of the time last season, up from 29 percent in 2017, and his curveball usage increased from 20 percent to 29 percent. He threw more changeups and cut back on the number of sinkers and sliders he used.
Lyles wound up with a career-best 10.3 percent swinging-strike rate and a career-high 22.6 percent strikeout rate on the year. Overall, he put together a 4.11 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP with 84 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings.
When the Pirates officially signed Lyles, Huntington released a statement that said Pittsburgh was looking forward to "helping Jordan continue to bridge the gap between potential and performance." There is no guarantee that Lyles will become an instant success in the rotation, but the Pirates believe in what he can be moving forward -- not just what he has been in the past.
"That's up to me. It's in my control," Lyles said. "If I do what I need to do, what I can do -- how we finished up last season, take that into Spring Training -- I think things will work out."