Jordan Lyles amazed again last night, limiting the Rangers offense to 2 runs over 8+ innings of work, scattering 7 hits and a walk along the way. The win drops Lyles’ ERA to 2.62 (3.43 FIP), this despite making three of his seven starts at Coors Field.
Lyles came to the Rockies via the Dexter Fowler trade, a deal that I hated at the time and still very much dislike, though its harm was mitigated by Charlie Blackmon’s torrid April. But to this point, Lyles has shut up doubters like me, pitching extremely well in fill-in work for the Rockies while Chatwood, then Anderson, then Chatwood were (or are) ailing.
Lyles is pitching above his numbers from last year, so he could very well regress, although he hasn’t pitched enough in the majors to give us a good sense of his floor. But let’s think not of the morrow, and instead look at why Lyles has been so effective so far in 2014:
1. Getting Ground Balls. The received wisdom of the Rockies’ front office, pitching coaches, players, fans, writers, and hot dog vendors is that Colorado pitchers thrive when they keep the ball on the ground, and wilt when they don’t.
Whether this is a phenomenon peculiar to the Rockies is debatable. But what’s not debatable is that Jordan Lyles has a 56.3% groundball rate this year. That’s 7% better than his career mark of 49.4%, and 8% better than his GB% last season. In fact, Lyles currently has the 10th-best groundball rate among all MLB starters. And with the Rockies playing outstanding defense, only 2.6% of ground balls hit off of Lyles go for infield hits.
2. Fooling Hitters. Lyles isn’t afraid to pitch to contact. He doesn’t nibble at the edges of the strike zone, and this year he’s shown the stuff needed to challenges hitters over the plate. Walt Weiss noted after last night’s game that Lyles’ two-seam fastball has been his difference-maker, and Lyles seems to agree. He’s throwing a two-seamer almost 43% of the time, appreciably more than last year. And he’s throwing his curveball less, which means hitters are seeing pitches that are moving… but with velocity.
Interestingly, Lyles isn’t beating hitters in the strikezone, at least not any more than last year. Hitters are swinging at pitches in the zone at about the same rate. But so far, Lyles has been more successful in getting hitters to make contact on pitches outside the strike zone, where they’re less likely hit the ball squarely. The result has been the same rate of contact by opposing hitters, but on less hittable pitches. Hitters, consequently, have only a .254 batting average on balls in play against Lyles, a full 60 points lower than last season.
3. Avoiding Trouble. While Lyles has been effective, he hasn’t been dominant, nor is he ever likely to be. Last night is a good example, where Lyles gave up seven hits over 8+ innings. But Lyles has succeeded this year, as he did last night, in limiting damage. Opponents are hitting only .194 with men on base against Lyles, and only .208 with runners in scoring position. As a result, Lyles is stranding 75.8% of baserunners, better than league average and, more importantly, 12 points better than Lyles’ 2013 LOB%.
Lyles also is helping himself by walking fewer hitters. He has a 5.7% walk rate, 2 percent better than last year and again, better than league average. By getting ground balls, limiting walks, and beating hitters with runners on base, Lyles has an ERA better noticeably than his FIP.
Regression is probably on the horizon, particularly since Lyles isn’t likely to continue putting up outstanding numbers in areas he largely he can’t control (e.g., opponent BABIP). But if Lyles continues to have success with his two-seamer, and keeps getting opposing hitters to chase pitches outside the zone, he’s poised to have a much better season, and contribute much more, than I expected.