When the Orioles agreed to a contract with Jordan Lyles a year ago, he was coming off of two straight seasons in which he led all American League pitchers in earned runs allowed. The 2021 season saw Lyles allow more home runs than any MLB pitcher. The usual phrases to try to dress up a mediocre acquisition like “veteran presence” and “innings eater” were deployed. There was absolutely no reason to be excited.
Between then and now, there were surprising developments. Before Lyles ever got into an Orioles uniform, the plan to move back and increase the height of the left field wall at Oriole Park at Camden Yards was revealed to the public. Even more significantly than that, the 2022 season turned out to be a fun revelation that left the team just a handful of games shy of a playoff spot. That’s a lot different than the latest grim march to a 100+ loss season that was expected.
For Lyles specifically, the surprising development for me is that he actually did pretty much exactly what the Orioles signed him to do. There were only 21 pitchers in MLB who made at least 32 starts this season; one of them was Lyles. He finished 29th in innings pitched, but if it weren’t for the rain delay in his penultimate start of the season, Lyles would have landed in or very close to the top 20.
This had a twin benefit for the Orioles. By making a full season of starts, Lyles stabilized one spot in the rotation and kept the team from having to plug either unqualified or not-quite-ready starters. This became even more significant when one hole was blown in the rotation two weeks into the season after John Means’s season ended due to a torn UCL. By pitching at least five innings in 25 of his 32 starts, he kept the Orioles from having to blow out the bullpen at least once per turn through the rotation.
These kinds of bigger picture considerations about Lyles get a mention because in truth his results were not so good. He was very, very close to being the same negative bWAR pitcher that he was for the Rangers in 2021. Lyles pitched exactly one inning more last year. His WHIP was .004 higher for Texas. His K/9 dropped by 0.1, BB/9 by 0.2. The only substantial difference is that Lyles’s home ERA went from 4.75 in 2021 to 3.47 this year. Home runs allowed in his home park went from 17 down to 6. Walltimore, hon. It’s not going anywhere.
Put it all together and what you get is Lyles finishing the season with a 4.42 ERA. Now, compared to the crap we’ve seen in Orioles rotations in recent years, that’s an amazing number. I think you can almost directly view Lyles as a replacement to 2021 Matt Harvey, who posted a 6.28 ERA in 28 starts.
That’s huge! It looks even bigger when you consider that Lyles threw 51.2 more innings as an Oriole than Harvey did last year. Lyles also saved the Orioles from the middle relief hell of guys like, just to name a few, Conner Greene (7.71 ERA, 23.1 IP), Konner Wade (11.68 ERA, 12.1 IP), Shaun Anderson (9.00 ERA, 10 IP), and Dusten Knight (9.35 ERA, 8.2 IP). This is not the sole or even the majority of the reason why the Orioles allowed 268 runs fewer this season compared to last, but Lyles soaking up innings is definitely a part of it.
It’s also the case that given Walltimore affecting Camden Yards numbers and the probably-deadened 2022 baseballs hurting the league-wide offense, Lyles grades out as a below league-average pitcher compared to the performance of his peers this season. The league-adjusted ERA+ stat puts him at 91, or 9% worse than the average pitcher. Then again, if you want to get hand wave-y in Lyles’s favor and scratch his recovering-from-a-stomach-virus September 10 start where he gave up eight earned runs in 3.2 innings from his season tally, he’d have a 4.11 ERA and be almost exactly league average.
The Orioles have the ability to exercise an $11 million contract option for 2023 to keep Lyles around. They will have to pay him a $1 million buyout if they don’t pick up the option. The first real question of the offseason for the front office is going to be whether they want to spend that extra $10 million to retain Lyles for 2023.
Depending on how optimistic a person is about the health or performance of some of the existing starting rotation options for the Orioles, you could rattle off a list of seven guys without even getting to Lyles: Kyle Bradish, DL Hall, Dean Kremer, Means, Grayson Rodriguez, Austin Voth, and Tyler Wells.
If you like four of those guys and think the Orioles should or will sign or trade for at least one starting pitcher, the idea of retaining Lyles probably seems unnecessary. Yet out of that whole group, the only one to have ever pitched a full MLB season is Means, who we already know won’t be available for Opening Day 2023.
The rest all have question marks around them. Bradish and Wells ended the season with below-league-average ERAs also. Rodriguez has not thrown more than 103 innings in a year as a pro. Hall has command problems. Voth’s 2022 might have been a flash in a pan.
Lyles has a lower ceiling than perhaps that whole set of names. He also comes with more certainty that he will be at least equal to his 2022 performance and durability. He’s the only one of the whole bunch to throw at least 150 innings this year.
The next Orioles team that aspires to real greatness - a potential 95+ win, AL East champion team - is going to need to do better than Lyles in any spot other than maybe the very back of the starting rotation. I don’t think that the 2023 Orioles are going to be quite ready to be that kind of team.
With that in mind, they can probably use another year of Lyles, even though he’s going to cost a little more this time around. Though both his ERA and FIP led him to below league average, he still was worth something by virtue of making a full season of starts and throwing a full season of innings. In bWAR it added up to 1.0 wins; in fWAR, Lyles was slightly higher at 1.4.
On the most recent going rate of dollars per win, that fWAR number is a value of $11.5 million - right about what the 2023 option would pay Lyles. That this is not terribly exciting does not make it any less true. Lyles did everything the Orioles could have hoped he would do this year, and even with greater expectations for the team heading into next year, there’s a decent chance he can do it again.
Previous 2022 Orioles player reviews: Bruce Zimmermann, Robinson Chirinos, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Nick Vespi/Logan Gillaspie, Spenser Watkins, Rougned Odor, Ryan McKenna, Kyle Bradish, Austin Hays, Keegan Akin, Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander
Tomorrow: Bryan Baker