Going to alter the format of this a little bit. Since I have argued that prospects should be evaluated in the context of the WAR they might produce, my Must-Follow Prospect articles for each team will evaluate those players in that context. I think this will help blend the statistical coverage into the scouting opinion that has me choose which players to focus on.
Cynically, it’s hard for me to see more than one must-follow prospect in the Astros farm system. This is an organization that didn’t value the draft prior to 2010, failing to sign numerous players that went on to be drafted highly elsewhere, and then put together a 2010 draft that I don’t think valued upside properly. The team is starting to build a nice bit of pitching depth, and should one day be able to field an above-average rotation. But for spots on a down-the-line depth chart to be depended on acquired talent from outside the organization is damning.
Jordan Lyles, the team’s top prospect by a country mile, is the only prospect in the organization who Astros fans can have reasonable expectations that he’ll exceed four wins above replacement. It was a benefit to the fan base that Lyles struggled by traditional numbers in a six-start trial at Triple-A, because before then, his manager was talking about a potential September call-up. The team correctly resisted that urge, and they must do the same out of Spring Training to ensure the pitcher is around in 2017. It might only be until then, said without snark, that the team is contending again.
After the jump, a look at Lyles in the context of the statistics that will be used to determine his worth.
Strikeout Rate: Lyles has good stuff, with three pitches that can rate plus on any particular day. By skill level, they certainly rank in this order: change-up, fastball, curveball. His change-up was one of the stand-out moments from my 2010 Futures Game experience. In a game clouded with pitchers rearing back and throwing their best fastball, Lyles pitched, and registered a strikeout with the best offspeed pitch of the afternoon. His change-up has also led to a reverse platoon split in the minor leagues, and I believe it will continue to have that effect at the Major League level. It truly has the potential to be one of the best change-ups in the league- a strikeout and groundball generator at the same time.
Lyles has made progress with his curveball, which is the biggest factor in his K-rate against RHH’s, and thus the most volatile factor in determining his future WAR. The pitch needs consistency and better command, but closer work with a big league pitching coach should help. Thoughts that the once-lanky and now filled-out Lyles would add velocity have probably sailed, though perhaps he can reach 94 mph with more consistency now. He’ll be able to throw the pitch by people high in the zone when necessary, but it’s not a pitch he can get a swing-and-miss with on a mistake, like some of his high-velocity prospect peers.
Walk Rate: It’s pretty unique for a 19-year-old pitcher to reach Triple-A, but it’s considerably more unique to do it with the polish and control that Lyles possesses. He’s not Zack Greinke, walking 18 batters in 140 innings at 19, but most other pitchers that reached the Majors at 20 were considerably more wild in the minor leagues. I think the best example might be Alex Fernandez, who walked 3.9 batters per nine innings at ages 20 and 21 while exposed to the big league for the first time, but would walk just 2.7 per nine in the rest of his team-controlled seasons. Something like Fernandez, with perhaps lower numbers on both ends, could be a reasonable expectation for Lyles.
Home Run Prevention and Corresponding Groundball Rate: Another button issue for Lyles. His groundball rates have been near 45% in his career according to StatCorner, though oddly better in the PCL (46.6%) than any stop before it. Perhaps he’s getting better at pitching down in the zone, or perhaps he intelligently reacted to his environment. Groundball rates rarely hold steady when moving from the minors to the Majors, so I doubt we’ll see a 45% rate initially. Lyles doesn’t throw his fastball with a ton of sink, just enough movement to get bad contact from minor league hitters consistently.
The Juice Box in Houston won’t help matters, as Lyles already has issues hanging his curveball. I suppose for that reason, you worry that Lyles will be the opposite of Matt Cain, performing better in the advanced metrics (which, rightly or wrongly, presume a HR/FB ratio will regress to the mean) then the actual ERA column.
From xFIP to ERA: In the four stops during his three-season career that Lyles has made six or more starts, his BABIP’s have been .345, .349, .336, and .406 respectively. Much of this blame is accurately to be pegged on poor minor league defenders, but I do wonder at what point the high BABIP’s go from interesting fact to cause for concern. Lyles’ line drive rates have been around 20%, a number that he’ll do well to improve.
Statistical Comparison: Shaun Marcum, change-up specialist. Perhaps Lyles will align more with the 2008 version of Marcum, where his groundball percentage was more around average, and his walk rate was closer to three. But I think the K rate around 7.5, the solid walk rate, and the problem with long balls (especially due to pitching in an offense-friendly environment) is a nice base of expectations. Only difference: I expect Lyles to be a little more astute at eating innings (and, thus, garnering WAR) than Marcum. The other example, which aligns a bit more with Lyles age pattern, is Alex Fernandez himself, though that would be two different routes to arrive at the same destination.
Thoughts: I believe in Jordan Lyles, because I believe a change-up might be the best second option a prospect can have, and Lyles has one of the best. He’s also a potential innings eater and a guy with fastball command. Give me those three things, and it’s really easy to plot a path toward 3 WAR, and not impossible to project a season or two around 6 WAR. His upside is limited because he’ll never threaten to strike out a batter per inning or post a groundball rate of 50%, but he’ll reach the Major Leagues at 20 with command-in-tow, and that makes him a special prospect.
The Any Fan Must Follow Astros Prospect: Jordan Lyles.
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