DENVER—It has been a tough season so far for Colorado Rockies reliever Jordan Lyles. The 26-year-old right-hander enters play on Wednesday with a 6.94 ERA and has often been the top scapegoat when the team’s bullpen struggles.
Fortunately for Lyles and the Rockies, bullpen woes these days come fewer and farther between than they did in 2016. The bulk of Lyles’ work has come in extreme low-leverage situations, so it hasn’t affected the team much in terms of wins and losses. It has, however, created a seemingly unshakeable reputation for Lyles as a pitcher who can’t be trusted to take the ball even in lopsided games.
Lyles has allowed two or more earned runs in seven of his 16 appearances this year. On several occasions, he’s allowed the opposing team to get back into games to the point where star closer Greg Holland has had to vulture saves. Lyles’ issues on the field—perhaps compounded by the fact that he was acquired in a deal that sent the beloved Dexter Fowler out of town—are almost always met with tweetstorms and article comments from frustrated fans.
Lyles knows all of that, and he expects better of himself.
“From a personal standpoint, the start of the season couldn’t have been much worse,” Lyles told Purple Row after pitching a scoreless inning last Friday.
Fortunately, winning made things better. Despite Lyles’ 10.03 ERA in April, the Rockies played pretty good baseball and entered May with a 16-10 record.
“My teammates have picked me up after my bad outings, and being on a winning team, the personal stuff doesn’t affect you as much,” Lyles said. “So I’m just keeping my head level.”
Lyles’ approach—keeping a level head and making it a point to bounce back from his early season woes—has paid off in May. The seventh-year big leaguer owns a 3.86 ERA this month thanks to his resilience—plus a few adjustments on the mound.
“[I’m] not throwing the sinker as much,” Lyles said. “Less movement, try to keep it over the plate.”
That’s a bold strategy—“I don't know [why] any pitcher would want to create less movement; that seems contradictory to what you want to do,” Rockies manager Bud Black said—but in a small sample, it has paid off. Lyles in recent outings has backed off of his sinker in favor of higher four-seam usage. The difference in results has been staggering:
May 11 vs. Dodgers (21⁄3 innings, 4 hits, 2 runs): 8 two-seam fastballs
May 19 at Reds (2 innings, 4 hits, 3 runs): 12 two-seam fastballs
May 23-29 (4 games, 41⁄3 total innings, no runs): 4 total two-seam fastballs
The danger in Lyles’ recent approach is that he’s generating fewer swings and misses; he’s down from 11.2 percent—slightly above the league-average figure of 10.2—through May 19 to 8.6 percent over his last four appearances. As a result, Lyles has just one strikeout during that time.
But as long as he avoids creating traffic, Lyles seems okay with the diminished whiff rate.
“I just want to keep guys off base and not walk them,” Lyles said. “I just have to get outs at the end of the day.”
It’s worth noting that Lyles, results wise, experienced periods of success with a similar profile as a reliever last season. The wheels came off a bit in September, but in his first 25 appearances out of the bullpen in 2016, Lyles posted a 2.67 ERA despite striking out only 15 batters in 301⁄3 innings. Limiting walks was key: Lyles’ walk rate during that stretch was 7.8 percent, better than the league average of 8.2.
He’s continued that this season, boasting an impressively low 4.9 percent walk rate. He just has to keep staying out of hitter’s counts and remain confident in an approach that has suited him well in the past. (And one that, by the way, has allowed the Rockies to have a pair of National League Rookie of the Year candidates in their rotation.)
Black continuing to pick and choose spots for Lyles to succeed will help, and the first-year Rockies manager isn’t showing any signs of backing off of the volatile reliever, in whom he still sees great potential.
“He's got good stuff,” Black said. “We’ve seen the velocity in the mid to upper 90s. We've seen the secondary pitches show up on the scouting scale as plus pitches.”
“What I've encouraged him to do lately is pitch regardless of the score,” the skipper continued. “Man, you've got to use your pitches and you've got to get outs.”
Starting catcher Tony Wolters echoed Black’s sentiments on the younger-than-you-think Lyles, expressing confidence in his teammate.
“Jordan's doing really well,” Wolters said. “He's making adjustments, executing pitches, and believing in his stuff. He has a really good four-seam [fastball] and he’s going to get guys out with it.”
As long as the Rockies keep winning, Lyles will continue receiving opportunities to get better. Bigger tests, such as getting back to more multiple-inning appearances, will come. The role of a long reliever—someone who can eat innings with even moderate effectiveness—is big for a team like the Rockies that employs multiple rookie starters and a young rotation overall. Lyles wants to be that. He relishes being part of the club’s newfound success.
“This is season No. 4 for me over here. My first three seasons in the major leagues were also losing seasons by a wide margin, so winning is a breath of fresh air,” Lyles said. “Those personal things—my bad start to the season—don’t weigh on me as much, and winning makes it easier for me to just go out there and get outs.”
“The other 24 guys in here know what I can do, and they've been great to me,” Lyles continued. “I want to be great for them.”