Since my tweet declaring that Tyler Lyons wasn’t good, the 29-year-old lefty has been one of the league’s very best relievers. Beginning on July 7th, Lyons has faced a total of 33 batters, striking out 15 of them (45.45%; for perspective, Trevor Rosenthal has posted a 45.6% strikeout rate during this same time frame). Only five of the batters have been able to reach base (leading to a wOBA of .139) — one walk, two hit-by-pitches, and two doubles. His .067 batting average against stands atop the leader board (of qualified relievers). Further, Lyons has not allowed an earned run since the one he allowed on the night of my tweet (July 6th), spanning nine and two-thirds innings pitched. Only six other MLB relievers can boast of this achievement during the same span (with at least 9 IP). To see just how much better Lyons has been, let’s break his 2017 season into two periods:
Other than the obvious — much better statistics — what has been different for Lyons over the last month plus? Of course, one must remember that relievers are inherently volatile — even the best ones, at times — and a month or so of appearances is a very small sample size. I understand that, and I hope you all understand that as well. However, a performance so vastly different from a statistical standpoint should yield at least some insight behind what has changed. And as I tend to do, especially for a pitcher topping out in the low-90’s, I chose to begin with pitch location:
It is undeniable that Lyons located his fastball (fourseamer plus sinker) dangerously for the first two plus months of the 2017 season. The mere presence of two core locations isn’t ideal, but is inevitable if the pitcher attacks lefties differently than righties (as Lyons typically does). That being said, neither core is located particularly well. The up-in-the-zone core isn’t high enough, and frankly, is far too close to the dreaded middle-middle location. The low-in-the-zone core is closer to the zone’s middle than its corner, which simply cannot work at ~90 MPH.
Starting on July 7th, Lyons’ fastball location has been much better — especially when you take into account both his plan of attack with the slider and how the two pitches match up from a movement standpoint. Movement defines Tyler Lyons, MLB pitcher. Throwing left-handed certainly helps, but a ~90 MPH fastball is far from noteworthy — in fact, it’s the slowest fastball on the Cardinals (yes, even slower than Adam Wainwright). Before discussing movement profiles further, let’s first take a look at Lyons’ slider heat maps:
Similar to what he has done with his fastballs, Lyons has truly refined his slider location since July 7th. The presence of two core locations in the first heat map screams of an inconsistent ability to get on top of the pitch at its release, subsequently leaving it hanging up in the zone. Quick research of Lyons’ vertical release points confirms this notion as he averaged a vertical release point of 6.07 feet on the slider prior to July 7th and 6.14 feet after — a difference of roughly an inch. Lyons’ average spin rate on the pitch has improved ever so slightly as well, to 2,415 rpm from 2,401 rpm.
Why is the slider’s current core location so effective, you ask? Other than the obvious — being down and away to lefties, down and in to righties — its movement (to the glove side) sequences perfectly with the movement of his other pitches (fourseamer, sinker, changeup), as all run to his arm-side. the current core locations of Lyons’ fastballs and slider, there simply isn’t a way for the two pitches to not cross paths on their respective flights home. And despite crossing paths, the two pitches still land in very different final locations. Sure, no pitcher is able to locate a pitch perfectly 100% of the time, but possessing core locations that allow for flight paths to cross is a great place to start.
To provide visuals for the point made above, I called on the great @cardinalsgifs to produce some eye candy. And as you’d expect, he didn’t let us down:
Sinker, slider to Ketel Marte (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
While the release points are off — not too unusual for breaking balls versus fastballs — the two pitches still find a way to cross paths beyond the half-way point to home plate. Despite crossing paths so close to home plate, they land in completely opposite parts of the zone. Sure, an MLB hitter should be able to distinguish the difference in spin between a fastball and slider, but when the crossing of paths is critical in the deceiving a pitch’s ultimate location. In hopes of removing some of the possible distractions, and to incorporate the strike zone, take a look at @cardinalsgifs‘ abstract GIF of the two pitches:
Sinker, slider to Marcell Ozuna (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
Unlike the Marte at bat, Lyons’ sinker-slider combination to Ozuna occurred on back-to-back pitches, making the sequence even more impressive. Ozuna, a 134 wRC+ hitter this season, looked downright helpless on this two-pitch sequence. After swinging (and missing) wildly on a 90.0 MPH sinker, he could only look at strike two, an 80.1 MPH slider. The difference in movement between these two pitches, horizontally, was more than 21 inches. Remember, the width of home plate is only 17 inches. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that the paths crossed very late in their respective flights. If Ozuna struggled picking up the spin, he probably gave up on the pitch soon after it left Lyons’ hand. Again, to clear up the distractions, @cardinalsgifs created the GIF below:
Tyler Lyons, bottom line
No, Lyons won’t consistently blow MLB hitters away. Instead, location, movement, and deception are critical to his success. Using dragless horizontal movement, Lyons averages a difference of 27+ inches between his sinker and slider. Remember, I prefer dragless horizontal movement, when possible, because it is a better representation of what the batter actually sees. If Lyons is able to build on the core locations embedded above, he will be a valuable weapon for years to come. Heck, as a reliever, he already has been one — posting a 2.80 ERA over 125.1 innings pitched. Oh, and Yadier Molina’s framing ability has certainly helped matters as Lyons has gained 12 called strikes since July 7th.