Texas Rangers Spring Training: Jordan Lyles is Ready to Build Off Strong Finish

Chris Halicke

SURPRISE, Ariz. – It's no secret by now. If the Texas Rangers are going to make any kind of noise hinting at a postseason berth, it will depend on the success of the pitching staff. This publication, along with many others, have tirelessly focused on the trio atop the Rangers' rotation – and for good reason. If they perform to their capabilities, it could be one of the best trios in all of baseball.

As we know by now (and if you didn't already, the 2019 Rangers are a prime example), depth in the pitching staff, especially the starting rotation, is key. Successful teams have more than five quality starting pitchers going into a season. 

While Corey Kluber, Mike Minor, and Lance Lynn steal the headlines, the other two starting pitchers in the Rangers' rotation aren't scrubs to be cast aside. Both pitchers have seen success at the big league level. Kyle Gibson is a quality Major League starting pitcher and Jordan Lyles has been on the upward trajectory since his 2018 stint with Milwaukee. 

In speaking with Lyles, he takes pride in how vital the starting rotation is. He's not shy about his role, but he knows it takes more than three good pitchers to get to the postseason.

"This team starts and finishes with Lance [Lynn] and Mike [Minor], especially coming off 2019 and the two seasons they had." Lyles said. "Obviously, a healthy Corey [Kluber] makes a world of a difference in a rotation. Me and Kyle [Gibson], we're in the back, and we want to hold up the last two days. We're here to do our part. We're definitely trying to complement and do the best we can. Hopefully Lance and Mike can repeat on their success from 2019, along with a healthy Corey and Kyle, I think we'll be where we want to be at the end of 2020."

Jordan Lyles had a strong finish in 2018 and earned a contract with the Pirates going into 2019. After a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of performance in Pittsburgh, Lyles was subsequently traded back to the Brewers and finished strong in the final two months of the season. With Milwaukee in 2019, he went 7-1 with a 2.45 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP in 11 starts.  

"I think going into the offseason, that whole offseason, you're in a good state mentally trying to continue the last few months you had in 2019," Lyles said about his successful stretch with the Brewers. "Mentally, it helps you out a little bit. I'm looking forward to continuing what I did after the trade deadline in Milwaukee, doing my job every fifth day. The other four guys, they're going to show up and compete. I'm here to do my job."

Lyles' time in Pittsburgh was split into two, significantly different, halves. He was stellar in his first eight starts of the season with the Pirates, going 4-1 with a 1.87 ERA in 47 2/3 innings. However, he struggled in his final nine starts, with a 1-6 record and a 9.57 ERA in 36 2/3 innings. 

Despite the change of scenery going back to Milwaukee, Lyles said he didn't significantly alter anything. 

"Not too much. I think what helped have more quality starts and more consistent starts once I got over to Milwaukee was we had a veteran backstop in Yasmani [Grandal] and Manny Piña," Lyles said. "I was familiar with them, so the transition at the deadline, and the previous deadline when I went over to Milwaukee as well, I was familiar with that group. Then throwing Yasmani into the equation, him putting down the right fingers made it easier on me. Being the veteran that he is, being confident in what fingers he was putting down, the game reports – all those things that lead into having a quality veteran back there – I think brought out the best in me."

The Rangers have a couple of quality veteran catchers behind the plate in Robinson Chirinos and Jeff Mathis. Chirinos caught Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole last year in Houston, while Jeff Mathis was praised for his work with the Rangers' pitching staff last season, especially with Mike Minor. 

Lyles and his new catchers are still getting to know each other, but Lyles likes what they bring to the table.

"It's still early, I haven't got to do too much work off the mound with them. Just some verbal conversations, going over different ideas that we like for each other, what I like to see set up-wise from them and what they see from me," Lyles said. "There's a lot of time left in spring training. We're going to get off the mound and I'll have plenty of chances to throw to them. Like I said, I enjoy the veteran and mental side of what they can bring to the game. That's what I look forward to the most."

Another veteran on the team that could have a positive impact on Lyles is Lance Lynn. Lynn and Lyles are similar pitchers with their pitch selection and Lyles has not shied away from speaking with Lynn.

"We've probably had 15-to-20 conversations so far. Half of them have been about the different things he does with the different pitches that he has. He has a lot of similar fastballs. They're in their own right different; they break a little bit different," Lyles said.  "We've been back-and-forth, showing different type of fastballs to each side of the plate, to lefties and righties. It's a lot easier said than done. That process is going to take a while to continue to figure out his mindset and the things he does well and try to pick and gather a couple things here and there from a guy who was a Cy Young contender last year and who's had a lot of success in the big leagues. Along with the other three guys on this staff, there's just so much you could learn from. The season can't come soon enough."

Lyles and Lynn have been through similar paths in terms of pitch selection and team philosophies, but with Lynn having a more successful career. Lyles tried different things throughout his career, but ultimately turned a corner when he went to Milwaukee in 2018. He made some adjustments to his pitch selection and it paid dividends.

"I think Lance early in his career, I think the Cardinals' philosophy was 'sinkers down and away.' We're similar in that when I was in Colorado, I tried to sink it for four years. That obviously didn't work out," Lyles said. "Two years ago, once I went over to Milwaukee, I was presented with, 'Your fastball plays better than you think up in the zone.' So I did that at the end of 2018, carried that over into Pittsburgh and Milwaukee last year, relying on that four-seam."

Lyles is putting together a formula for success. He's found what's been working for him, which is increasing the use of his four-seam fastball. In 2018, he used it 34% of the time, while in 2019, he bumped it up to 50%. 

Going with a predominant fastball/curveball mix is similar to Lance Lynn, so Lyles intends to continue to learn from Lynn.

"I think it's going to be a healthy mix of picking Lance's brain," Lyles said. "Talking about those four-seams and two-seams, when to throw them, where to throw them, in certain counts, etc...It's a learning process and I'm looking forward to figuring it out."

Going into 2020, Lyles is not only focusing on repeating the same kind of success that he had at the end of 2019. He is also working on adding a consistent third pitch to the mix. 

"Early in spring training right now, I'm really focusing on getting my changeup to play. I need that third pitch," Lyles said. "I've got the four-seam, curveball, sprinkle in a little cutter, but I need my changeup to play. I need guys to get off the curveball a little bit more to help me be more consistent...In my career, I've been up and down. I'll have a good stretch of two, three, or four starts, and then I'll have that blow up game. I didn't have that at the end of last year."

If Lyles can develop the same kind of rapport that he had in Milwaukee with Chirinos and/or Mathis, he could provide quality innings every time he takes the mound. 

Jordan Lyles is set to throw a live bullpen session on Saturday, along with Kyle Gibson. 

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