STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Keone Kela was supposed be the gravy, the icing on the cake, the cherry on top of the sundae or any other cliche you might like to insert here. The Chris Archer acquisition took the headlines, leaving the club's swipe of Kela as window dressing. But those that saw him pitch before his arrival at Federal Street knew what the team was getting.
And here's a hint: it wasn't this. Kela has given up three home runs to date. This, after surrendering five dingers in total over all of 2018. At his current rate, Kela is on a theoretical pace to blow by his previous career high in round trippers when he gave up six in 2016. I'm out of synonyms for a home run so let's move on.
Kela's sudden fondness for giving up runs with one simple swing only tells half the story of his current foibles. The real answer, as it often is with relievers, is much more complex.
Have a gander at a few key peripherals and their eerie similarities to 2018:
I chose these peripherals not at random, but to paint a picture of how small year-over-year fluctuations can carry an influence of larger scope.
First, Kela's best weapon -- his curveball -- is virtually unchanged from 2018 in terms of where it matters most: spin. Even so, hitters seem to feel much more confident in offering at it early (1st pitch swing percentage), which could mean trouble if Kela continues to feature it at first pitch to the tune of 38.5 percent of his 0-0 pitches. This is a drastic increase in 2018's 26.2 percent rate.
Kela still comes into the zone just as much as he did last season, yet again hitters feel a deeper level of comfort putting a swing on his in-zone offerings. This is seen both by frequency (zone swing) and zone contact. As things stand, Kela is allowing a .367 xwOBA figure on contact among in-zone pitches, another startling increase from his 2018 .284.
Let's leave the land of common sense for a brief sojourn to the other side of Kela's coin. All of the above comes despite Kela carrying fantastic first-strike and chase figures, which normally serve as foundational pillars of reliever effectiveness.
And it is because of that inherent contradiction that I, and many, are not prepared to cede Kela's high-leverage innings to, oh I don't know, Nick Burdi. As well as Burdi has pitched, Kela carries the pedigree of having done the job so well for the four years previous.
That's not as easily qualified, but should still count for something.
LET'S BREAK IT DOWN
A semi-regular feature here on Mound Visit will be a deeper look into noteworthy starts by Pirates hurlers. These breakdowns could come from inspiration found in a particularly sparkling -- or equally horrid -- outing. If it warrants further breakdown, we'll talk about it here. Today we are going to take a deeper look at Jordan Lyles' start from April 10th.
That's a pretty pitching line by any measure, and it carries hidden benefits. If not for Lyles, who sounded confident without getting ahead of himself in talking to our John Perrotto, then perhaps for Pirates fans who let their angst over the team's fifth starter occupy a large swatch of head space this past offseason:
#Pirates poll time!
How encouraged were you by Jordan Lyles' start last night?
— Jason Rollison (@jrollisonpgh) April 11, 2019
Yes, that's 13 swinging strikes along with 17 called strikes in six innings of work. Much has been made of the adjustments that Lyles made last year that unlocked a greater degree of effectiveness, albeit in the bullpen, and it just might be possible that those changes might present themselves with an increased ability to fool hitters. Only twice in his 36 appearances last season -- both as a starter and reliever -- did he induce 10 whiffs or more.
Without a blazing fastball, Lyles relies on craft to put his strikeouts together. That approach was on display in the early going. Let's look at Kris Bryant's first plate appearance from the evening:
Though Bryant gifted Lyles with a called strike on a very attractive four-seam fastball at first pitch, Lyles surprised us all by dropping in a slider. The right-hander dropped his slider usage last year to 9.64 percent, pretty much leaving the pitch on the side of the road. However, it can be useful in micro-doses such as here. Bryant historically has trouble with the pitch, with a 42.39 percent whiff per swing and a 36.5 percent whiff rate on the pitch overall over the last two seasons.
Spotting a slider here is a good gamble that got Lyles to 0-2 against a dangerous hitter. Doing so allowed him to play things a little closer to the vest. Bryant rightly laid off an easily avoided curve, and Lyles followed up with a fastball that seemed to sail on him a bit.
But the lesson that Lyles can teach all of us is that even wasted pitch is not fated to be a waste. Now at an even count, Lyles pulled the string, dropping an 85.3 mph changeup that was 14.4 inches lower than the previous pitch. At a fastball count, Bryant was fooled and swung late. Would that changeup had been as effective if that previous fastball was wide or down and in? We'll never know of course, but it would be foolish to think that the drop in location and speed from pitch to pitch did not hurt Lyles' cause.
The very next batter shows us the kind of "common-man wizardry" that Lyles can provide when all of his best pitches are working. No one will ever confuse Lyles' curveball -- as good as it is -- with Lance McCuller's, nor will his changeup get mixed up with Mike Minor's. That won't stop him from liberally featuring both.
Sometimes, that approach means the fastball gets put away for awhile.
Let's look at this at-bat against Rizzo in the sixth inning that had a very interesting sequence:
When those pitches are working, Lyles can be afforded the ability to be careful with hitters that can clobber his fastball. This brings a different dimension that his other rotation-mates might not feature as often.
Where Lyles can get in trouble, however, is with his four-seamer.
In the sixth inning, Lyles got into a bit of hot water with Bryant, who eventually walked. After getting to 3-1, an obvious fastball count, Lyles tried to get a call on the edge with a fastball to get back in, but was denied a call.
This is rather symptomatic of his heat on the edges, looking at his 2018 fastball edge data backs this up:
Of the 434 qualified pitchers that threw at least 250 fastballs on the edges of the strike zone last season, Lyles was decidedly average in getting strike calls. He fared a bit better in contact quality, but the point remains: When Lyles has to work to be too fine, bad things are afoot.
Lyles won't have an opportunity to prove himself again until later this week at the earliest. Such is life among MLB's cabal of fifth starters at this early juncture of the season. Should he continue to trust his pitches while utilizing every bit of data available to him, Lyles has more than a puncher's chance at building upon his early success.
To continue reading, log into your account: