Royals Seek Liberation Through Jordan Lyles

© Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports

In order to understand Jordan Lyles’ two-year, $17 million contract with the Kansas City Royals, you need to understand this: Baseball, unlike other sports, is not governed by a clock.

A rosy, romantic articulation of this fact has been a cliché within the sport for generations. Other, newer, cruder sports are bound by the oppressive temporal strictures that make our lives into a brutal struggle, but not baseball. Baseball proceeds at whatever pace the game requires, aloof from the petty concerns of time. This distance allows grown men to revert to gleeful childhood. The crack of the bat, the smell of fresh-cut grass, and so on.

The truth is somewhat more sinister. Because baseball operates outside the bounds of time, there is no escape unless the game is completed. Mere desultory attendance will not suffice — progress must be made or the game will not allow you to leave. You cannot take a knee, or rag the puck, or kick the ball really high to kill the clock. There is no clock. Baseball is like Jumanji. Complete the objective or you will be trapped within the game until you die.

The baseball gods demand a tribute, in the form of outs. In the course of a normal game, we think of outs as something to be gobbled up cheerily like Pac-Man’s dots. A Max Scherzer or a Clayton Kershaw harvests his outs briskly and purposefully, deposits them in the box score, and moves on to the next game — presumably a victory.

Other pitchers, and teams, are not so fortunate. Their outs are acquired at great cost of labor, in the steaming August heat for a team that’s known since Tax Day that it’s going to go 58-104. These pitchers cultivate outs, drag them up the slopes of a volcano, and lob them into the caldera. Only then can they, and their teammates, be released from the day’s work and go home.

Jordan Lyles is such a pitcher. As a mere 20-year-old, he was called up to the Process Astros, where he toiled for three seasons on teams that lost 106, 107, and 111 games, respectively. Thereafter he was liberated, if you want to call it that, to Coors Field for another term of three and a half years. It was in his sixth major league season that he first pitched for a team that lost fewer than 94 games. On April 5, 2017, Lyles made his 145th career appearance. By that time he’d been in the majors for almost six years and thrown more than 600 innings. That was the first instance in which he played for a team that finished over .500. Not that he saw the Promised Land — the Rockies released him in August.

Over 12 big league seasons, counting three midseason moves, Lyles has pitched for 15 distinct teams. Four lost at least 100 games, 10 lost at least 90. Another, the 2020 Rangers, finished 22-38, which is a 103-loss pace if they’d been given a chance to play a full season. Lyles is a man for whom the 2019 Pirates, which would represent rock bottom for an ordinary pitcher, are one of the most successful teams he’s ever played for.

All this gives the appearance of a man who slogs aimlessly from one misery to the next, like a cross between Odysseus and Charlie Brown. Some replacement-level homunculus who might put up a 7.00 ERA — which in fairness, Lyles has done twice in his career — and is likely as not to be cut by the trade deadline.

Why, to return to the original question, is Kansas City giving a two-year guaranteed contract to a man who pitches with misfortune perched on his shoulder?

Because, intending no undue disrespect, the Royals are probably going to stink this coming year. They lost 97 games in 2022 and are bringing back substantially the same team. And the pitching isn’t good. Starting roughly five years ago, the Royals attempted to speed-run their rebuild by investing one high pick after another into major conference college pitchers. Talented arms with a track record of success against the toughest amateur competition there is and relatively short paths to the majors. I thought this was a great idea at the time, as sound and low-risk a draft strategy as one could devise.

It’s been a near-total failure so far. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. The Royals drafted six power conference pitchers in 2018, and five of them pitched for the Royals last year, which is an impressive ratio. Brady Singer had something of a breakout season: a 3.23 ERA and 2.9 WAR in 153 1/3 innings is good by anyone’s standards. But all four of the others — Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, and Jonathan Heasley — posted ERAs over 5.00. Kowar (9.77 ERA, 15 2/3 innings) was the only one who did so in less than 100 innings.

Last season’s Royals were dead last in the league in K-BB%, 28th in ERA-, and 29th in opponent batting average. Royals opponents had the exact same cumulative batting average in 2022 — .267 — as George Springer.

Will Lyles transform the Royals’ pitching staff into a winner? Most likely not. But this isn’t a team that needs to win. This is a team that needs to put outs into the volcano so they can go home at the end of the night. That is an area in which Lyles has special expertise, particularly in the past four years.

Right now, I’m sitting on a draft of a writeup of the Cubs’ rumored signing of Drew Smyly, waiting for the deal to be official and terms to be announced. Smyly, in my estimation, is a solid back-end starter, the 2023 version of an innings-eater. He has made 20 starts and pitched at least 100 innings in every 162-game season since 2019, which is a rarer accomplishment than you might think. Nowadays, 20 starts and 100 innings is what 30 starts and 180 innings was 10 years ago.

Lyles makes 30 starts and throws 180 innings a year now, without adjusting for inflation. (Okay, 180 innings in 2021, 179 in 2022.)

Since he returned to the rotation full-time in 2019, Lyles has thrown 530 2/3 innings, which is 25th in the majors over that stretch. Are there more prolific pitchers out there? Sure, but that list tends to overlap with a list of the best, and therefore most expensive, pitchers in baseball. Of the 24 starters who have thrown more innings than Lyles in the past four seasons, 21 have made at least one All-Star team or gotten at least one Cy Young vote in that time. (The exceptions are Merrill Kelly, Madison Bumgarner, and Marco Gonzales.)

Among the list of 21 luminaries, there are a few examples of what you might call open-box specials. Zack Greinke was good and prolific for the Royals last year, and he remains an option for Kansas City’s rotation. Patrick Corbin, for all his other shortcomings, is still going out there every fifth day and delivering his sacrifice to the vengeful god of outs. Surely the Nationals would give him away if the Royals called.

But in terms of this year’s free agent class, Lyles seems like a bargain if durability is the concern. Any upgrade in quality gets you into the Jameson TaillonTaijuan Walker zone, which is close to $20 million-a-year territory. Lyles is a tall, high-volume right-hander in his 30s with a good walk rate but lackluster stuff and a low strikeout rate. In this year’s class, the best alternative I can think of who fits that description is the man who took Lyles’ job in Baltimore. Kyle Gibson, who was an All-Star in 2021, God save us all, got a one-year, $10 million contract from the Orioles earlier this winter.

Lyles is three years younger than Gibson, and just signed for an extra season at $1.5 million less per year. That means security for Kansas City if he pitches well, without much extra risk if he doesn’t. Whatever reputational difference there is between the two has to be influenced by Gibson’s half a good season with the Rangers in 2021, versus the Richard Ford novel that was the first half of Lyles’ career. Over the past few seasons, if anything I’d rather have Lyles:

Two years and $17 million for a pitcher who usually posts an ERA within a few tenths of 5.00 might sound like a lot. But that’s the newly reinvigorated free agent environment we live in now. Pay that price, or you might not get enough outs to escape the ballpark.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

Okay I understand them signing Ryan Yarbrough. He is on a one year deal and he cost almost nothing and he is controlled through arbitration for another year. There is close to zero risk there.

But spending actual money on Jordan Lyles, on a two year deal? At the Roster Resource page, the Royals have seven (seven!) players listed as starters on their 40 man roster who aren’t projected as rotation members but are projected to AAA. Are all of Kris Bubic, Alec Marsh, Max Castillo, and Jonathan Bowlan relievers now? I understand not wanting to count on Jonathan Heasley and Angel Zerpa and Jackson Kowar, so maybe they’re just relievers or up and down spot starters now, but giving up on all seven sounds real bad! They’re not going to be good or anything, so now is the time to find out who’s for real.

And Lyles is coming off what looks to be a “career year” at the age of 31, where he was still only a 5th starter. He’s not likely to be meaningfully better than Wade Miley or Zack Greinke (remember him?), and they would probably be happy with a major league deal and being in the rotation. And this deal is for two years, so they’re probably going to keep running him out there no matter what happens with the rest of their guys for two years.

Although this team is also the same team that gave Ryan O’Hearn a guaranteed major league deal despite the presence of both Pasquantino and Pratto (and Salvador Perez / MJ Melendez, one of whom will probably DH a bit). So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

I just can’t fathom deals like this. It’s not like Jordan Lyles is even going to sell tickets like Greinke, Danny Duffy, or Johnny Cueto would.