The Royals have had a tame offseason in terms of free agents added. That being said, Kansas City did make an effort to improve their starting pitching staff by signing Jordan Lyles, who last pitched with the Baltimore Orioles in 2022.
A former top prospect in the Houston Astros system, according to Baseball America, Lyles has been a polarizing pickup among Royals fans.
On one end, Lyles has been one of the most durable pitchers in baseball the past two seasons, as he has accumulated 359 IP combined in 2021 and 2022 (he spent the 2021 season with the Texas Rangers). On the other end, Lyles’ results have been somewhat questionable over the course of his career, as he sports a career ERA of 5.10, including a 4.42 ERA last season in Baltimore.
While Lyles’ signing may have been cheap on an AAV end (he’s going to make roughly $8.5 million this year), it is still head-scratching to many Royals fans that they would give him a two-year deal to Lyles, and be a little more frugal with Brady Singer and Zack Greinke, who both haven’t been able to come to a deal with the Royals this offseason (Singer in arbitration and Greinke in free agency).
While Lyles may not have the fanfare of Greinke or even Singer, it isn’t out of the question to think that Lyles could lead a turnaround in the Royals pitching staff in 2023, especially with a new manager in Matt Quatraro and pitching coach in Brian Sweeney.
In this post, I am going to take a look at some key pitches from Lyles to watch for this season, and how they could contribute to a “better-than-expected” season from the 32-year-old pitcher.
Decrease of the Four-Seamer; Increase of the Sinker (And Maybe Cutter?)
The four-seam fastball has been Lyles’ primary pitch over the course of his career. Even though he threw it 31.8 percent (his most-thrown pitch), Statcast pitch usage data demonstrates that he’s seen a decline in usage of the pitch over the past couple of seasons.
Lyles peaked with four-seamer usage in 2019 at a 50.2 percent rate. However, he saw that rate decline to 43.5 percent in 2020 and 39.5 percent in 2021, both seasons in which he pitched for the Texas Rangers.
In his only season with the Orioles, his four-seam pitch usage was not only 7.7 percent down from his last season in Texas, but 18.4 lower than his 2019 mark as well (when he was pitching with the Brewers).
When it comes to generating swinging strikes with the four-seamer, Lyles has been remarkably consistent when it comes to finding which zones to exploit opposing hitters over the past three years.
Notice in his 2020-2022 four-seam swinging-strike heatmap below that he has been solid in terms of generating swings and misses in that upper part of the strike zone (which is ideal for four-seam fastballs due to the vertical movement of the pitch).
Here’s an example of Lyles generating a swing-and-miss strikeout in that upper part of the strike zone back in August at Camden Yards against Elvis Andrus of the Chicago White Sox:
While Lyles has been generating swinging strikes in the right area of the strike zone against opposing hitters, the actual overall results leave a bit to be desired.
Here’s a glance at the run value data of his four-seamer since 2019, via Baseball Savant. After a stellar mark of -9 in 2019, it’s been rough ever since, despite Lyles seeing a seven-run improvement in four-seam run value from 2021 to 2022.
Lyles produced a 1.3 decline in whiff rate, a 3.4 percent decline in K rate, and a 2.5 percent regression in put away rate in 2022 on his four-seamer. Furthermore, his four-seamer was much better in terms of limiting productive contact last season, as his .395 wOBA allowed on his four-seamer was his best mark on the pitch since 2019 when he was pitching with the Brewers.
Here’s a look at what his four-seam heatmap looked like on base hits allowed in 2022:
All that red in those areas is not ideal, as it will tend to result in contact that will produce “loud” extra base hits, especially home runs.
In the clip below, Lyles makes a mistake with his four-seamer in that strike zone location against Boston’s Rafael Devers, and Devers makes him pay dearly at Camden in Lyles’ final start of the season.
The location isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination. Additionally, it’s also important to notice the velocity difference in four-seam velocity in Devers’ home run (90 MPH) from the Andrus strikeout (92 MPH).
Based on Statcast pitch velocity data in 2022, Lyles’ four-seamer pretty much petered out by the end of the season, and it’s not surprising that hitters posted a .600 xWOBA in his final month of pitching last season.
On the other hand, the sinker from Lyles saw some more positive gains last season with the Orioles.
In addition to increasing his pitch usage of the sinker from 8.9 percent in 2021 to 17.5 percent in 2022, Lyles also was much better in terms of limiting hard contact with the pitch. Lyles’ 26.2 percent put-away rate and .336 xwOBA on the sinker was a lot better in 2022 than his 13.1 percent put-away rate and .408 xwOBA with the four-seamer.
Even in the category of hard-hit rate, Royals fans can see Lyles was much better in terms of limiting hard contact with the sinker in contrast to the four-seamer. Notice how much higher the four-seam hard-hit rate is than the sinker hard-hit rate in the image comparison below, especially from June to the end of the season:
(Scroll left for the four-seamer; right for the sinker.)
Here’s an example of the tailing arm-side movement of Lyles’ sinker getting in on the hands of Yankees hitter DJ LeMahieu, which forces him to produce an easy groundball to shortstop Jorge Mateo:
Against lefties, Lyles’ cutter was arguably just as effective as the sinker. His cutter, which he threw 4.6 percent of the time against lefties in 2022, generated a put-away rate of 18.2 percent, which was the third-best put-away rate of his pitches against lefties last season.
Below is an example of Lyle’s ability to freeze opposing left-handed hitters with his cutter. Tampa Bay’s Brett Phillips was unable to pull the trigger on Lyles’ cutter thrown up in the zone, which gets called for strike three:
It will be interesting to see if Lyles will continue his trend of throwing his four-seam fastball less in 2023 and utilize his sinker and cutter more, especially against right-handed and left-handed hitters, respectively.
Lyles saw incremental gains from using his four-seamer less in 2022. One would like to think that Sweeney would want him to continue that trend in Lyles’ first season in Kansas City.
The Slider Over the Curve
Another interesting development for Lyles in Baltimore could be found in the change of his breaking offering usage in 2022.
In his time in Texas (2020 and 2021), Lyles utilized his curveball as his primary breaking pitch against opposing hitters. However, in his time with the Orioles, his slider became his go-to secondary pitch, which can be seen in the pitch usage data chart comparison below.
(Scroll right for curveball; left for slider.)
While his curveball did produce a higher putaway rate (26.4 percent) than the slider (14 percent), the slider was superior to the curve in terms of whiff rate (29.8 percent to 24 percent) as well as hard-hit rate allowed (26.4 percent to 46.8 percent).
When Lyles hung the curveball in the strike zone, opposing hitters were able to crush the ball. That was especially the case in this George Springer home run on Lyles’ curveball in a September game against the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre:
On the other hand, Lyles’ slider was much better at limiting hard contact, which explains why he used it more frequently than the curve in 2022.
In this at-bat below against Chicago’s Eloy Jimenez, Lyles’ slider not only prompts Jimenez to chase out of the strike zone, but it also produces a ground ball that Mateo is able to make a sensational play on.
It should be noted that Lyles’ slider hasn’t always generated that kind of nasty movement, especially on the horizontal end. If Royals fans take a look at the average horizontal movement chart (via Savant) on his slider over the years, they will notice a particularly big spike from Lyles in his one season in Baltimore.
While the chart clearly showcases Lyles’ improvement in terms of making the slider work better for him over the years in regards to east-west movement, one can also see his development since 2020 in the GIF compilation below:
The slider did lose some velocity from 2020 (85 MPH) to 2022 (78 MPH in that clip). However, the sharp, breaking movement on the breaking pitch makes it a much superior pitch, especially when it comes to generating swings outside of the strike zone.
In the chart below, Lyles produced one of the best chase rates of his career with the slider in Baltimore and did so while throwing it at a career-high rate (23.9 percent).
Royals fans should expect Lyles to continue to lean on that slider in 2023 as his primary breaking pitch…
And the results from 2022 are positive signs that the pitch could continue to be an effective go-to secondary offering for Lyles in Kansas City.
Final Thoughts On Lyles
If Lyles is to find success in 2023, it may rest on the usage of his sinker/cutter combo, as well as his slider.
While his four-seamer and curveball have been widely utilized offerings over his career, his decline in usage of the pitches demonstrates that Lyles understands that the pitches aren’t effective when it comes to generating consistent outs.
Lyles does throw a changeup 10.8 percent of the time, making it an intriguing fourth or fifth pitch for him in his repertoire. He also induced a hard-hit rate of 26.9 percent with the pitch, which was the third-best pitch in that category. However, he did give up a .404 wOBA on the changeup, which was the worst mark of the five pitches he threw in 2022.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see him lessen the usage of that pitch in 2022, especially after at-bats like this one below to Joey Gallo:
Instead, Lyles could increase the usage of the cutter, which he threw 2.7 percent overall. That could be a better weapon for Lyles against left-handed hitters than the changeup and it could offer a nice complement with the sinker and the pitch’s corresponding movement as well.
It’s easy to think from a Royals fan’s perspective that Lyles was an unnecessary pickup, especially with Greinke still available on the free-agent market.
On the flip side, a deeper dive into their metrics, via Fangraphs, shows that Lyles has a compelling case to perhaps outperform Greinke in 2023, especially with his xFIP and SIERA numbers in 2022 being much better than Greinke’s.
Lyles will benefit on the HR/9 end from the move to Kauffman in 2023 much like Greinke did in 2022.
And that most likely will affect Lyles’ other numbers in his first season in Kansas City, especially in regard to ERA and FIP.
Who knows if the Royals will indeed re-sign Greinke…
But if they don’t, Lyles could be a nice, if not slightly better consolation prize for the next two years.
He just won’t have any classic Athletic oral histories written about him, unlike Greinke.
Photo Credit: G Fiume/Getty Images