Colorado Rockies: Jordan Lyles Comes Into His Own

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Apr 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Rockies pitcher Jordan Lyles (24) delivers a pitch during the second inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Lyles tossed 6.2 innings of one-run ball Thursday afternoon, lowering his season ERA below 3.00. It’s still very early, but he’s been very impressive this year. 

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Say it with me: Jordan Lyles is the ace of the staff for the Colorado Rockies. I know, he’s not the stereotypical ace, and I also know he’s not the guy most people thought would be leading the way for the team this year (although, just for the record, I was high on him a few weeks ago).

Nevertheless, after his fourth turn through the rotation – across which he’s gone at least six innings in every start and twirled three quality outings in the process – Lyles now has an ERA under 3.00, a batting average against at just .244, and a 1.44 ground ball to fly ball ratio.

When the Rockies acquired Lyles from the Houston Astros before last season, I’m sure most people were skeptical of his ability and future considering how poorly he did in his first few years in the big leagues. But not me!

I’m not gloating, I just mean that, for whatever reason (probably the fact he’s from a small town in South Carolina where I have played quite a few baseball games), I’d followed Lyles since he was drafted out of high school in 2008. I thought the Astros brought him up way too quickly, and forced him to learn how to be a professional baseball player at the game’s highest level as a 20- and 21-year old, and considering the Rockies’ choice to acquire him, I know I wasn’t the only one.

Now, the Rockies have a starter in Lyles who won’t turn 25 until after the season – he and Tyler Matzek are the exact same age, both born October 19, 1990 – and yet, he’s now made 91 career big league starts. That’s more than Matzek (just 22 career starts), and Eddie Butler (four months younger with just six big league starts).

Experience alone doesn’t mean success, of course, but it’s a sure fire way to learn and then apply the lessons of the game for players who can make adjustments. After five years figuring it out, including a few lean seasons for some awful Astros teams of the early 2010s, Lyles is showing he’s adjusting to the league.

How’s he doing that? Well, among other things, he’s using five pitches, when plenty of starters (like his opponent Thursday, Tyson Ross) are only using two. The Padres broadcast team, Dick Enberg and Mark Grant, marveled at that, noting how Lyles was throwing 90 mph fastballs much of the game but was hitting 95 mph when he needed to do so, effectively giving himself another pitch with a harder fastball.

Lyles is throwing five pitches pretty consistently this year. If you (maybe generously) consider Enberg and Grant’s point and consider a 95 mph heater a “different” pitch, you could argue Lyles is throwing six different looks at hitters. (Considering the average velocity on Lyles’ four-seam fastball is just above 91 mph, maybe you could consider the 95 mph offering as an outlier and a sixth different look for hitters.)

After barely using a two-seamer early in Houston, Lyles has developed one that he now throws about a quarter of the time. He’s cut back on his slider and curve a bit (partly because of Denver, perhaps), but has focused much more on his change up with the Rockies.

All this represents not only growth in his arsenal, but better trust of his stuff. A 24-year old big league starter who throws five pitches – the least popular of which he still throws 9% of the time, more than just a “show-me” offering – is a starter who is beginning to understand how to work hitters rather than rely on one bread-and-butter offering in every situation.

Being a quality starter isn’t just dependent on pitch selection – location, velocity, defense, run support, and all kinds of opponent splits play a role – but Lyles’ diverse trust in five (or six?) pitches catches my eye as a good omen for his future.

Jordan Lyles may not become the next James Shields or whomever else you look at as a big-time right-handed starter, and he might not be a 20-game winner (but he could be!), but he is developing into a good big league starter before our eyes. It’s a cool thing to see.

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