HOUSTON - JUNE 07: Pitcher Jordan Lyles of the Houston Astros takes the field after taking questions from the media at Minute Maid Park on June 7, 2011 in Houston, Texas. Lyles was recently brought up from Triple A Oklahoma City. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Hey, now that the trade furor has settled down, we have time to focus on the team we have left. One of the big pieces that still remains a question mark is Jordan Lyles.
He hasn't been very good.
That alone makes people judge his ceiling a lot differently than they did two seasons ago. What has changed? Will Lyles ever be a good major leaguer? Is it time to cut bait with him being a future face of the organization?
Not so fast, my friend. There are a handful of reasons why Lyles' 5+ ERA in the past two seasons shouldn't be worrying on the surface, but the biggest is his age. After the jump, we'll look at the very small number of starters who have similar statistics and number of starts through Age 21 season.
As I said, the only problem with this analysis is that there are very, very few pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings in 25 or more starts and had an ERA of 5.00 or higher. That's because young guys who struggle usually get sent back down to gain some seasoning.
Take a guy like Jacob Turner. Similarly young, similarly highly-regarded and similar struggles early on in his career. Turner got sent back down to Triple-A multiple times after getting called up, which can hurt a players development, but it's also something Jordan Lyles is familiar with.
But, Turner didn't make this list, because he hasn't made nearly the same number of starts that Lyles has. In fact, if we hold to just 25 starts, only six guys since 1950 can claim that distinction. Who are they? Phil Huffman (1979), Ed Correa ('87), Greg Maddux ('87), Javy Vasquez ('98) and Jeremy Bonderman (2004). Until Lyles, no pitcher had done it in eight seasons.
If we take out the ERA component, there have been 112 pitchers to fit the other parameters we set out. So, the number who had that little success is pretty rare. That 112 pitchers includes 10 since Bonderman. That includes Trevor Cahill, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Rick Porcello, Zack Greinke and Scott Kazmir among others.
But, back to our original group. If we accept that it's hard to make comparisons like this stick because of the very small sample size, let's look at what our Young, Bad Six did.
Huffman got all his starts in one season and only played once more in the majors, so he's not a great addition to the group, since Lyles has stuck in the majors for more than just one year. Correa got injured after his Age 21 season and never pitched in the majors again.
That leaves us with Bonderman, Vasquez and Maddux. I think in those three, we have a pretty good scale of where Lyles could land, with Bonderman on the low end, Vasquez in the middle and Maddux as the absolute apex. I'm not saying that those are his floor and ceiling, but within these parameters, those are the limits.
Bonderman saw his success more gradually, lowering his ERA for three straight seasons before the incredible workload he was under caught up to him and injuries scuttled most of the rest of his career.
Vasquez also saw that same drop in his ERA for his first four seasons, but was able to sustain his success before being traded to the Yankees and setting off a rollercoaster end to his career.
Maddux, of course, was bad in his first two seasons before being locked in for pretty much the next 20 years.
Two differences between these three and Lyles are the ground ball rate and the strikeout rate. We only have data on ground balls back to 2003, so we can't see all of Maddux or Vasquez' career rates, but we can see it for Bonderman. Both Bonderman and Vasquez were fly ball pitchers with ground ball rates around 40 percent. Maddux, once we had data, hovered around 50 percent for much of the end of his career.
After seeing his GB rate at 40 percent for his rookie season, Lyles has seen a dramatic rise this year. It's at 52 percent right now, and ZiPS sees him finishing at 46.5 percent. If he can stay above 50, it would seem he has a chance to be successful later on in his career.
The strikeout rate is also important. Coming up through the system, Lyles was a huge strikeout pitcher, but it hasn't ever been good in the majors. In fact, his strikeout rate has regressed this year to under 6 K/9. He's going to need his ground ball rate to be high if he wants to have a chance to be successful with a strikeout rate that low.
Bonderman's K rate bounced around, having seasons around 6 and then jumping up to around 8 or 9 in some of his most successful years. Vasquez was higher for pretty much his entire career, while Maddux was successful sitting around 5 K/9 from the beginning.
Of course, he did that with his outstanding control. An example of that is his second and third seasons. In his second season, Maddux walked 74 in 155 innings. In his third? Innings went up almost 100 while his walks rose by just seven to 81. That means his walk rate dropped from 4.28 to 2.93 in one season.
Lyles is sitting at 2.60 this year and 2.54 BB/9 for his career. That's lower than Bonderman and on par with Vasquez, but obviously is higher than Maddux' career 1.80 rate (which is ridiculous BTW).
If you're worried about the injuries factor, it's also worth noting that Lyles has pitched about half the innings that Bonderman did through Age 21 and on par with what both Vasquez and Maddux did. So, I don't think overuse like we saw with Bonderman will factor in here.
I'll caveat this one more time, because we're trying to take three very different pitchers and turn them into a comparable for Jordan Lyles here, when there have been thousands upon thousands of guys play the game. It's not a perfect way to do it, but I think it is insightful.
Looking at things, I'd say Lyles has a good shot at becoming Vasquez with a lower strikeout rate and a slightly higher GB rate. I'll take that, if it's the case.
The thing we need to see next is a drop in his ERA next year. It can happen in a hurry or gradually, but it needs to happen. Just don't jump off the Lyles Train just yet.