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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Jordan Lyles

The O’s newest starter is the guy who gave up the most runs in the AL in 2020 and in 2021. Be still, our beating hearts!

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles
Yes, but his fastball LOOKS really fast in multiple exposure.
Daniel Kucin Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features an article about each player currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.

On December 2, 2021, Orioles fans got one last-minute surprise before the MLB shut down shop for three months, an early Christmas present, if you will: the team signed free agent starting pitcher Jordan Lyles on a one-year contract worth $7 million. The contract includes a second year-long option worth up to $10 million if the Orioles pick up Lyles in 2023, making the total deal worth $17 million, the single largest free agent contract given out under Mike Elias. ... Yay?

Technically, the deal wasn’t made official until March 12, after the lockout was lifted. That day, the Baltimore Sun’s Nathan Ruiz, not usually known for his sarcasm, wrote: “The news you waited all lockout for: The Jordan Lyles signing is official.” CC’s Mark Brown captured Birdland’s feelings well when he wrote this back in December:

Lyles has essentially already been an Orioles in spirit for at least two years. The most recent team he’s been playing for in his 11-year MLB career is the Rangers. In both the shortened 2020 season and the regular-length 2021 season, Lyles led all American League pitchers in earned runs allowed. His combined ERA with Texas was 5.60.

You might be wondering why the Orioles would bother with Lyles. I’m also wondering.

As Mark also pointed out, we should probably think of Jordan Lyles as the replacement for Matt Harvey last season. Lyles never reached Harvey’s heights at his peak. Then again, Harvey had a 6.27 ERA for Baltimore in 127.2 innings over 28 starts. Could Lyles top that in 2022? I think he could.

After a highly regarded minors career, Lyles debuted with Houston in 2011 but was traded to Colorado after two unremarkable seasons. After four seasons at Mile High Stadium spelling out a 5.22 combined ERA, he ended up in San Diego for two years, then Milwaukee for a spell, then Pittsburgh, then Texas ... and now Baltimore. It’s impressive from the point of view of longevity, if not results: in all but Milwaukee, he’s never averaged an ERA below 5. He has a career 1.435 WHIP. In 2021, he topped all AL pitchers in earned runs and home runs allowed. Hope that new left-field wall is high and deep.

I don’t mean to sound completely ungrateful. One nice thing about Lyles is his deep pitch arsenal. That doesn’t mean he’s blowing hitters away (his K% is bottom-quintile), but still it’s an impressively diversified offering. Lyles is a five-, technically, six-pitch pitcher (heater, slider, curveball, sinker, changeup, cutter). The cutter did see action only 3.8% of the time last season. But his putaway pitches are evenly balanced: none of the six was used as his putaway pitch less than 14% or more than 19.9% of the time.

Lyles doesn’t walk a ton of guys, but he also doesn’t strike many out. In 2020, he was bottom-4% of the league in strikeouts. Since 2019, though, Lyles has been boosting his offspeed offerings, decreasing reliance on the fastball, and upping his use of the slider and sinker. With an average FB velocity of 93 mph last season, I’ll go ahead and guess the Orioles tell him to continue throwing along those lines.

So why did the Orioles bother locking up a roster spot on a 5.21 career-ERA guy on the wrong side of 30? A couple of clichés—tried-but-true—come to mind: “durability” is one. Over 11 seasons, Lyles has pitched 125 or more innings five times. Perhaps most impressively, in 2021 at age 31, he was one of just 20 pitchers in all of MLB to hit the 180 innings mark. It was actually the first time in Lyles’ career that he’d thrown more than 141.2 innings in a season. Nice! Bottom line: it’s not brilliance, but he doesn’t seem prone to the dreaded injury bug (when he’s missed time— cross fingers!—it was seemingly due to bumps and bruises: a busted toe, a bruised hand, right side discomfort, and so on). ERA aside, that’s an achievement in itself.

Another unsurprising but true answer is his experience. An 11-year career as an MLB starter is nothing to sneeze at. So as MASN’s Roch Kubatko reported, it’s probably no coincidence that at the Birds’ spring training complex in Sarasota, Jordan Lyles has the locker next to Grayson Rodriguez. Hopefully Lyles teaches Rodriguez lots of good things, especially how to take care of his arm and how not to lock up a 54-79 career win-loss record and a negative career WAR.

Joking aside, it’s obvious that the guy gives a fractious, unsettled starting rotation valuable veteran experience. It’s a sad fact that, for now, only two rotation spots have been sewed up, and Jordan Lyles has the other one. It’s not clear who among Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann, Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, or Kyle Bradish is going to step up and steal the spot, but if and when they do, it’d be nice if Jordan Lyles is a guy they can lean on for help.

End of season prediction: Lyles comes as advertised. Elias likes to reunite with “his guys” from way back when in Houston, even though in 2022, Lyles is far from a hot onetime top-100 prospect. The 31-year-old has never posted a sub-4.11 ERA in a full season in 11 years. I see two paths for Lyles: either he pitches OK and gets dealt midseason, or he struggles and finishes out the year with the club a veteran stopgap in the rotation, but probably no more than that.

Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra, D.L. Hall, Jahmai Jones, Bruce Zimmermann, Mike Baumann, Ryan McKenna, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Jorge López, Ramón Urías, Dillon Tate, Paul Fry, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, Cole Sulser, Jorge Mateo, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart, Ryan Mountcastle, Tyler Wells, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, Trey Mancini, John Means, Cedric Mullins

Tomorrow: Robinson Chirinos