With 6 2/3 scoreless innings in Cleveland on Wednesday night, Jordan Lyles lowered his season ERA to 4.25 and raised his season innings to 152.1. Even for a guy known for being a workhorse, that innings total stands out. It’s Lyles’ second-highest season total ever, while his ERA is the third lowest he’s put up in 12 seasons, after 2018 and 2019, one of which Lyles spent working out of the bullpen.
Lyles did some very impressive things on Wednesday night that were typical of what he’s being able to achieve in 2022. To cash out that claim, let’s break down two at-bats from Wednesday’s game in a little more detail. During the second inning, Andrés Giménez stepped into the batter’s box against Lyles. Giménez, as the MASN booth pointed out, is the best-hitting second baseman in the game right now.
This was the pitch sequence Giménez faced:
Curveball (Ball 1)
Four-seam fastball (Foul)
Changeup (Ball 2)
Curveball (Swinging strike)
Curveball (Swinging strike)
What’s unusual about this sequence is that Lyles normally throws fewer than 12% curveballs, but on Wednesday, he threw more of them than any other pitch, at 32%. It’s not that Giménez can’t hit curveballs (actually, he can), but the pitch was working for Lyles that night. Lyles has a six-pitch offering, but he changes the mix from outing to outing. In other words, with him, you can’t sit on any one pitch.
Here’s one more example from the same game. In the fifth inning, José Ramírez came to the plate having already singled and doubled in two trips. A fearsome hitter, Ramírez is one of a few players beside Aaron Judge who’s in the running for AL MVP right now. Here’s what Lyles threw Ramírez:
The first pitch was way outside the zone, a cutter. The second was a changeup, so far outside the zone it’s partly cut off in the map above. A curveball landed in the dirt for Ball 3. Down 3-0 to Ramírez, who’s seventh out of all MLB hitters in OPS+ and ninth in OPS, I would have packed up shop and just walked him. Instead, Lyles challenged him with a high fastball. Ramírez nearly sent it onto the flag court, but it went foul: Strike 1. Then Lyles landed another fastball, a borderline pitch, for Strike 2. The sixth pitch was a gutsy strike-to-ball curveball which Ramírez fouled off. Seventh and finally, Lyles threw a sinker. Just slower and with a little more break than his fastball, it was different enough to draw a flyout from Ramírez, a 344-foot blast into Anthony Santander’s glove instead of a home run into the bleachers.
This, again, was vintage Lyles. The competitiveness. The pitch mix, which included five of his six pitches. The sequencing: using his fastball to offset his curveball and vice-versa when he ended the at-bat with the sinker.
Back in December 1, 2021, when Lyles agreed to a deal with the Orioles, it felt like the sort of uninspiring free-agent signing that said “This team is going nowhere in 2022.” Lyles had led the league in earned runs in both 2020 and 2021. His career ERA of 5.12 was among the worst out of established starters.
Instead, Lyles is outperforming himself and making the Orioles front office and coaching staff look rather smart. His value in terms of steadiness is beyond dispute. Lyles is tied for first in the Majors in starts, and his 152.1 innings pitched rank fifteenth, putting him on an elite list of rotation stalwarts including Sandy Alcantara, Miles Mikolas, Max Fried and Corbin Burnes. Those are far better pitchers, but still: you can’t give your team value if you’re not pitching. In 27 starts this year, Lyles has failed to make it to the fifth inning only once, and he’s given up four earned runs or less in 23 of them. Always brilliant? No. But he’s reduced wear-and-tear on the bullpen, plus the odds are high that when Jordan Lyles pitches, he won’t collapse. That’s old pro type of stuff.
So, is Lyles good? Not compared to the competition, no. Lyles has allowed lots of baserunners this year—lots. Among qualified starters, Lyles leads the league in hits allowed (168), and his WHIP (1.46) and hits per nine innings (10.38 H/9) are second-worst behind only Madison Bumgardner. His walk rate (2.84 BB/9) is tenth highest. Obviously, keeping runners off the basepaths has not been a great strength.
However, Lyles is succeeding by his own terms, giving the Orioles more than what they could have expected with they signed him. His 4.25 ERA in 2022 is his second-best mark in 11 seasons as a starter. His FIP of 4.30 is his third-best. Lyles is also allowing relatively weak contact, the expected average on his fastball and his sinker among his career lowest.
Notably, this seems to have to do with pitch mix. Like Austin Voth, another new Oriole, Lyles has stopped relying so much on his fastball in 2022, and has mixed in his secondary stuff (notably his changeup and cutter) more often. This, again, is probably an Orioles coaching decision. Lyles’ fastball usage is lower now than in all but three past seasons.
Moreover, he seems to have a different game plan for each game, and a quick look at the data suggests that he’s mixing and matching his pitches even more than he did in past years. A veteran move, sure, but also one that reflects advanced scouting reports and good coaching.
Whatever fully explains the Jordan Lyles renaissance, fans should be delighted that a guy signed for inning-eating—and not much more than that—has provided stability and even stretches of brilliance to this rotation. Don’t underestimate the value Jordan Lyles brings to this team, even with his unspectacular numbers. If the Orioles are to keep up the pressure down the stretch, they’ll need him.