The Toronto Blue Jays are in need of starting pitching and Jordan Lyles would be a sneaky good target for them
Earlier this month, I discussed the steps I felt the Blue Jays could take this off-season to build a competitive team for 2020. For the most part, my advice was to keep calm and carry on, as the rebuild is far enough along that long-term pieces have already begun to establish themselves on the MLB roster. One of the areas that I felt could use some short-term attention was the starting rotation. In my aforementioned post, I mentioned a handful of starting pitchers beneath the very top of the market that I could envision the Blue Jays pursuing.
The topic came back to mind after I read Cam Lewis’ post at Blue Jays Nation on the free agent starting pitchers the Jays could potentially sign. He concluded by offering his own opinion of how the Jays should approach their off-season: sign one of Jake Odorizzi or Zack Wheeler (the top non-Gerrit Cole SP on the market this year) and Madison Bumgarner.
I agree with Cam that the Jays should aggressively pursue Wheeler and Odorizzi, with the hopes of snagging one of them. Each pitcher had fantastic 2019 seasons. They both rated well in terms of overall stats like FIP- and xwOBA, while also producing better-than-average marks in terms of K-BB% and xwOBACON. Simply put, they were effective at both generating strikeouts relative to walks, as well as at limiting dangerous contact.
While they lack a long track record of above-average performance, their track records do suggest that any deal should be fair value for money. Odorizzi has produced the 35th-most fWAR (13.4) since 2014, his first full big league season. Wheeler has now produced two straight 4+ fWAR seasons, giving him the tenth-most fWAR (8.9) over the 2018-19 seasons.
The logic behind signing Bumgarner is also strong. His track record is unimpeachable and, while he has thrown an incredible number of pitches in his MLB career, he’s still only 30 years old. That said, I bet he signs with Atlanta. They would benefit from adding a post-season legend to their rotation, have the financial flexibility to afford him and are only a four-hour drive from his hometown of Hickory, North Carolina.
There are a lot of other free agent starting pitchers the Jays could target, but one high-upside play I hope the Jays pursue is Jordan Lyles. Lyles has been in the majors since 2011, his age-20 season, after being drafted 38th overall by the Astros in 2008. He debuted as a starter with the Astros (2011-13), before moving to the bullpen with the Rockies (2014-17). He served both roles with the Padres (2017-18), before being picked up by the Brewers last August, where he had success as a reliever. Signed by the Pirates this season, he was used in their rotation until he was moved to the Brewers, where he continued as a starter.
This past season, Lyles effectively generated strikeouts relative to walks, posting a 15.2% K-BB% that ranked in the 55th percentile among starters with 100-plus innings pitched. He also effectively limited dangerous contact, holding batters to a .368 xwOBACON, a 58th percentile mark that is identical to Odorizzi’s and just behind Wheeler’s. Combine the two together and we arrive at Lyles’ .307 xwOBA (63rd percentile). Part of what makes Lyles an attractive upside play is that his results on batted balls were worse than the underlying contact would suggest, evidenced by his .395 wOBACON (30th percentile) and .325 wOBA (36th percentile).
Lyles’s lack of track record as an effective starter is another reason he is an upside play. However, as FanGraphs discussed in a recent post, he has made meaningful changes to his pitch mix this season, which has helped him generate better results. The post is worth a read, but the short story is that he has focused on using his four-seamer (50.1% usage) and curveball (31.3%). This has been a positive move for him, as the two pitches look very similar to batters (especially lefties) at the point where they must decide whether or not to swing.
Yet another reason to pursue his upside is the way he finished the season. After joining the Brewers at the trade deadline, he leaned into those pitch mix changes, eliminating his sinker, reducing his use of the changeup and increasing his use of the four-seamer, curveball and (especially) slider. While he posted similar strikeout and walk rates with the Pirates and Brewers this season, his underlying contact grew much weaker after he joined the Brewers. In fact, from July 31st on, his .319 xwOBACON was the sixth-best mark among major league starters (min. 100 batted balls). I certainly won’t say the pitch mix alterations caused the improved performance, but it is an interesting correlation.
Among the other free agent starters, my picks would be Wade Miley and Homer Bailey. The two pitchers were good for 160-plus innings and average quality in 2019—Miley posted a 100 FIP- and .301 xwOBA, while Bailey posted a 92 FIP- and .319 xwOBA—performances the Blue Jays would really benefit from next season. Miley was excellent at preventing dangerous contact (.333 xwOBACON), a useful trait in an AL East pitcher, though he struggled at generating strikeouts relative to walks (11% K-BB%). Bailey was decent in that regard (13.8% K-BB%) as well as at generating weak contact (.374 xwOBACON).
When I wrote about a competitive 2020 Blue Jays team, I budgeted 5 WAR between the two acquired starting pitchers. I think a combination of one of Wheeler or Odorizzi and one of Lyles, Miley or Bailey has a good shot at hitting that mark.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.