The Pirates Just Picked Up a Good Little Bargain

The Pirates have made official a move that first popped up last week. I’d wanted to write something about their low-cost pickup of free-agent Jordan Lyles, but it was a low priority, and it got lost in the chaos of being in attendance at the winter meetings. This post, then, is a little delayed, but something that’s happened in the meanwhile is that the Dodgers signed Joe Kelly for three years and $25 million. The Pirates signed Lyles for one year and $2.05 million. This seems like a good job by the Pirates.

Based on some early indications, the free-agent market hasn’t cratered, and it might even be a bit healthier than it was a year ago. Kelly got paid over three years. Jeurys Familia got paid over three years. Andrew McCutchen got paid over three years. Lance Lynn got paid over three years. There’s money out there, and there’s interest in pitchers, and that’s the context in which the Pirates made this Lyles acquisition. I know that Lyles isn’t likely to win the Cy Young, and I know the Pirates aren’t likely to win the World Series, but I’d at least like to dedicate a few paragraphs to Lyles’ quiet emergence in 2018. This is a guy who’s still only 28 years old.

Lyles has thrown almost 800 major-league innings, and his ERA sits comfortably north of 5. Overall, he’s just been a disappointing first-round draft pick, but his career isn’t over. He’s just a pitcher in transition. You can get a basic understanding from the Pirates’ official statement:

“We are pleased to add Jordan Lyles to our Major League pitching staff,” said Huntington. “Jordan has always had a quality pitch arsenal, and given his success after adjusting how he used his pitches during the 2018 season, he will have a legitimate opportunity to earn a spot in our rotation in 2019. We look forward to helping Jordan continue to bridge the gap between potential and performance.”

Lyles might indeed serve as a starter. He started a handful of games last season. His numbers were fine. But he might not hold off Nick Kingham, and he might not hold off Mitch Keller. I think the likelihood is that Lyles spends most, if not all of 2019 in the bullpen, as a guy who can go multiple innings. That feels like the best role for him to have, especially given that adjustment Huntington noted.

Here is that adjustment in a picture, via Brooks Baseball:

Last year, Lyles started to abandon his two-seam fastball, favoring the four-seam variety. As it happens, it’s the four-seam fastball that tends to pair better with a curveball, and Lyles went to his curve more than ever, abandoning half of his sliders. Lyles’ curve gets into the mid-80s, which makes it a weapon, and between 2017 and 2018, that curveball added three inches of extra depth. Here’s a look at the curveball in action:

For those curious, here’s a look at the fastball in action:

Lyles just turned into more of a four-seam/curveball pitcher. That doesn’t on its own make him a rare breed, but it was a change to his own profile, and those two pitches accounted for two-thirds of everything he threw last season. That bumped up to three-quarters of everything he threw after the break. Lyles, you could say, is benefiting from the information era in which his career is taking place, as he’s figuring out which of his pitches work best. It looks like he’s settled on a promising combo.

There’s nothing that specifically links the 28-year-old Lyles and the 30-year-old Kelly. They just happen to be two big-league pitchers who were both free agents. But it interests me that Kelly got the bigger guarantee by more than 12 times. Kelly has a better track record, I guess, and the Dodgers would’ve certainly been encouraged by what they saw Kelly do in the playoffs. Mike Petriello wrote up the encouraging parts of the Kelly case. Kelly made some adjustments before October, and then he didn’t issue a single walk. For Joe Kelly, that’s remarkable. Remember that the Boston bullpen was considered a liability headed into the tournament.

Lyles, of course, made his own adjustments, much, much earlier. For Kelly, we can’t only look at the playoffs. His regular season also matters, and in his final four appearances, post-adjustments, he threw barely half of his pitches for strikes. He didn’t walk anyone over 11 games between April 10 and May 5. He walked five batters over the next 11. Let me just show you a table, for 2018. This *includes* Joe Kelly’s awesome October.

Pitcher Comparison
Reliever K% BB/HBP% K-BB/HBP% Strike% Contact% wOBA xwOBA Fastball MPH
Joe Kelly 24.6% 11.6% 13.1% 61.8% 74.2% 0.281 0.299 98.2
Jordan Lyles 26.3% 10.2% 16.2% 63.6% 71.6% 0.266 0.285 94.4
xwOBA courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Lyles is better in every single category but the last one. This is looking only at Lyles’ numbers as a reliever, but his numbers as a starter weren’t too dissimilar, aside from having allowed some extra home runs. The last category is important — though Lyles is hardly a finesse pitcher, Kelly throws harder, and the Dodgers think they can work with his stuff. Compared to Lyles, Kelly gives hitters less time to react. But that was as true during the summer as it was in October, and Lyles’ numbers compare favorably. I understand preferring Joe Kelly, but that requires putting a lot of emphasis on a postseason hot streak.

When you start focusing on pitches and spin rates, you can uncover some hidden gems, but you can also trick yourself into believing Tyler Chatwood is going to be great, when he’s never been that good at throwing strikes. October aside, Kelly has never been that good at throwing strikes, and he certainly doesn’t look better at strikes than Lyles. You can zoom in on the changes Kelly made late in the year, but Lyles made his changes during the year, and his own performance was encouraging. There’s no ignoring the month he missed with elbow inflammation, but he came back to pitch after the fact, and after asking around I’ve been led to believe he’s healthy now. He was obviously healthy enough to pass the Pirates’ physical.

The tiny elephant in the room might be that Lyles was a free agent in the first place. In order for him to get there, the Brewers had to decline a $3.5-million option, which is hardly that expensive. The Brewers might’ve seen something they didn’t like, and perhaps they weren’t alone. At the same time, the Brewers are already deep in quality arms, so maybe they didn’t want to commit that money to someone who’d likely hang in the middle innings. They are, after all, a smaller-budget operation, looking to make other moves. If I had to guess, I think Jordan Lyles simply slipped through the cracks. It does happen, especially in a crowded and chaotic player market, and the Pirates get to benefit as a consequence. Sure, Joe Kelly might be better moving forward, but he also might not. It’s an awful lot closer than you’d think it would be.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

I was completely unaware Lyles was competent last year. It looks like he has dropped both in and out of zone contact three consecutive years (especially out of zone) while swstr% rose three years in a row from a 7ish percent baseline to a career high of 10.8% in 2018. Very interesting, even as just a third or fourth guy in the pen, at that price.

5 years ago
Reply to  rhswanzey

At that price he could be the last guy in the pen or up and down between AAA and MLB and still have positive value.