When the Pirates agreed to a deal last week with right-handed pitcher Jordan Lyles, there was some uncertainty about his role. Was he added to be Ivan Nova’s replacement in the rotation? Were the Pirates going with the opener strategy, which Neal Huntington indicated would be an option? Or was Lyles simply a reliever, with the fifth starter spot still open.

The Pirates made the signing of Lyles official today, and Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington made it clear that Lyles was brought in with the chance to be a starter, and the inside track for the job.

“He’s going to come in and compete to be in our rotation,” Huntington said via conference call. “We also like Steven Brault and Nick Kingham as options as well. If Jordan continues to pitch the way he pitched out of the pen in Milwaukee in our rotation, we’ll have a strong rotation and a strong bullpen to complement it.”

The Pirates are banking on some changes that Lyles made during the 2018 season to his pitching approach, specifically regarding his pitch usage. Lyles started throwing his curveball more often and reduced the usage of his fastballs. That’s a trend that has seen a lot of success in recent years with teams like the Astros, and a trend that the Pirates picked up on this last year, leading to some impressive numbers from Jameson Taillon and a few others. It makes sense that they would be interested in another pitcher who made the same adjustments.

“We’ve liked Jordan Lyles for a while,” Huntington said. “We’ve had some thoughts on how we could help him. He started that process in San Diego, and took it to the next level in Milwaukee. Had success out of the bullpen with changing his pitch use, changing his arsenal a little bit. We believe that we can continue to build upon that success here.”

Lyles said that he liked the team the Pirates had, calling their rotation one of the best in baseball. However, the big influence in his decision to sign was the chance to be a starter. He discussed the adjustments he made last year, and how they can be applied to the rotation.

“When I was relieving, I kind of stuck to my three better pitches, the fastball, curveball, changeup,” Lyles said. “As a starter, I kind of relied on my cutter/slider to get back in the count. In many shorter stints, I pushed that fourth pitch away, and what I had to learn about myself was lessen that fourth pitch and not relying on it as much in counts where I’m behind.”

Lyles said that when he got to Milwaukee at the end of the season, he was presented with some numbers that broke down his stuff. That led to a more extreme change in his pitch usage. He was throwing his fastballs 48% of the time with the Padres and 47% of the time with the Brewers. There wasn’t much change there, except for a small downtick in the overall usage, and a small uptick in the sinker usage (12.5 to 14.5%).

The biggest adjustment was that his curveball usage went way up (26.8% to 36.8%), while his changeup (14.3% to 7.8%) and slider (10.1% to 7.8%) both saw a decrease with the Brewers. The results in Milwaukee were impressive, with a 3.31 ERA, a 3.80 xFIP, and a 12.12 K/9 in his limited time with the Brewers (16.1 IP).

“The use of the curveball, it’s his best swing and miss pitch, and there’s a correlation there between the increase in strikeouts and the increase in the use of his curveball,” Huntington said of the increase in strikeouts.

Lyles described himself as a typical 60/40 guy, meaning he would throw his fastball 60% of the time, and his secondary stuff 40% of the time. He had that profile until 2017, when he dropped the fastball usage to 55%. He made a further drop to 48.6% this past year, with a big jump in his curveball usage.

“The game is kind of going to my breaking ball, instead of that 60/40% that you’ve known,” Lyles said. “When I sat down and those numbers were put in front of me, it made me rely on my breaking ball, and rely on my four-seam fastball up in the zone a little bit more.”

The key drawback here is that Lyles had success with Milwaukee in a very small sample size, and as a reliever. The small sample size can be countered with the fact that he made some legit changes to his approach that supports the numbers. The bigger challenge will be applying that approach to the rotation. Lyles feels that will be easier, due to the added confidence he gained with the new approach.

“It’s going to make my job a little bit easier, having more certainty in what I’m doing, and that this is the way I need to attack guys and get guys out,” Lyles said. “I think confidence is the most important thing.”

Lyles said that he’s going to apply those same changes to the rotation, relying on his curveball more often, and pairing that with the fastball and changeup as his primary pitches. Huntington said that in addition to those changes, the Pirates liked how effective his sinker became when it went from a primary weapon to a secondary pitch.

“We still like the sinker and the power it had at the bottom of the zone,” Huntington said. “Pair that with a good riding fastball at the top, and a power breaking ball. We think there’s more in here, and he can complement those pitches with the cutter/slider, and mix in an occasional changeup. Primarily he’s going to be what he was in Milwaukee’s bullpen, and we’ll see if there are some other pitches that can supplement those, the fastball and the hard breaking ball.”

The Pirates are banking on the changes Lyles made, and hoping that they’d translate to the rotation, making him a better starter than what he’s shown in past stints in the rotation.

“He won’t be the first and won’t be the last guy to take some lessons learned out of the bullpen and apply those to the rotation and push forward,” Huntington said.

While Lyles has the inside track for the rotation spot, Huntington said that the opener strategy would still be an option. That would only happen if no one stepped up in Spring Training to claim the final rotation spot.

“If Jordan, Steven, Nick show that we’re better served using an opener, then we’ll go with an opener,” Huntington said. “But perfect world, one of these young men, Jordan with the inside track, but one of these men will take that starter spot and pitch very well. If no one takes that spot and grabs a hold of it, given that all three have the ability to pitch out of the bullpen, given that all three have the ability to pitch innings, then we may revert back to the opener concept. We’re looking for one of these guys to come in and grab the starter spot.”

It seems the fifth starter spot is essentially filled for the Pirates in 2019. The Pirates are planning on Jordan Lyles having that role by transitioning his 2018 success from the bullpen to the rotation. If he doesn’t work out, then they’ll hope one of Nick Kingham or Steven Brault will step up. And if none of them work out, then look for the team to use an opener strategy every fifth start.

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