For the past two seasons, Jordan Lyles was the youngest starting pitcher in major league baseball. The right-hander turned 22 back on October 19, but has already logged 40 starts and 235 innings in the majors with a 4.53 FIP and a 4.12 SIERA.
In 2013, Lyles will lose that title of youngest starting pitcher in the majors. Heck, he might not even be the youngest pitcher in the American League West. That title will probably go to Martin Perez, but there figure to be at least four pitchers who are 21 or younger starting games in the majors this year.
For Lyles, that means he needs to start putting some of the bad luck and big innings behind him to take a step forward this season. With a player this young, there are no pivotal years. Lyles could struggle again this season and still bounce back to be a solid starter in 2014. But, to be a part of the Astros long term future, he'd need to make some progress this season, to become the rising star fans have been hoping for the past few years.
The big, flashy numbers were not good for Lyles in 2012. He posted a 5-12 record with a 5.09 ERA in 141 innings. That included 25 major league starts, including one complete-game shutout, 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.67 walks per nine innings with an FIP of 4.53 and an xFIP of 4.10.
SIERA liked Lyles the most, clocking in at 4.07 for last season while trueERA liked him the least at 4.49. All of those numbers were improvements on his 2011 numbers, except for the strikeout and walk rates, which were each a bit worse than before.
Lyles did see two encouraging changes in his batted ball profile last season. He allowed a more manageable 17 percent line drive rate, compared to a 21 percent rate in his big league debut. Lyles also dramatically raised his ground ball rate and his ground ball/fly ball ratio. The 21-year old went from 40 percent to almost 54 percent in one season, dropping his fly ball rate under 30 percent.
Lyles also got good news via Pitch F/X. His average fastball velocity was up to 91.7 MPH last season from 89.9 in 2011. In fact, his velocity was up pretty much across the board, as his two-seamer was also up about two miles per hour, his slider velocity was up a tick (but not enough to be more than statistical noise) and his curveball was up almost three miles per hour.
He upped his percentage of two-seam fastballs while reducing the number of cutters and sliders he threw, which resulted in that huge swing in his ground ball rate, no doubt. As for their effectiveness? Going by FanGraph's linear weights, his four-seamer was well below average, his two-seamer was slightly above average and his slider was right around league average.
Pretty much everyone is optimistic in Lyles once again chewing through the innings. Bill James, Steamer, ZiPS and Oliver all have him throwing around 165 innings. It's the results that vary here.
ZiPS is fairly optimistic, considering what's come before by projecting Lyles with a 4.95 ERA, a 4.25 FIP and 91 strikeouts in 165 innings. That would result in a slightly lower fWAR result than he had last season, dropping from 0.8 to 0.6.
The ever-optimistic Jamesian model has Lyles throwing 163 innings with an increase in strikeout rate (up to 6.90), a slight drop in walk rate and a 4.64 ERA with a 3.94 FIP. He does however predict that Lyles will finish with a 6-12 record.
Steamer is maybe the most optimistic overall for Lyles while being pessimistic about many of his rates. Steamer sees Lyles dropping his K/9 rate and seeing a rise in his walk rate in 164 innings. But, it's got Lyles going 10-10 overall with a 1.6 fWAR total, thanks to a 4.49 ERA and a 4.33 FIP.
Oliver splits the difference on many of these. It has Lyles throwing 169 innings with a 9-10 record overall, but no change in his walk rate or strikeout rate from last season (maybe a smidge lower walk rate). The big difference for Oliver comes in a drastically reduced home run rate, down to 0.85 and the lowest of all the projection systems. This leads to a 4.38 ERA and a 3.88 FIP.
It's tough to tell what Jordan Lyles is morphing into. Will he ever be that strikeout machine we saw at Lexington in his breakout season? Probably not. The velocity just isn't there.
But, he could be turning into a Derek Lowe or Brad Penny type ground ball pitcher, where his strikeout rate isn't great, but he limits enough walks to get by while eating innings. That may not seem like much for fans who thought the precocious youngster would be the next Roy Oswalt phenom in the system, but it is tangible progress.
So, the thing to watch for Lyles in 2013 is how he handles adversity. Will he continue to induce ground ball after ground ball? Will he break down in key innings once again? Or, will he bounce back and finally start becoming a legitimate big league starting pitcher, instead of just being an oddity as the youngest pitcher in the league?