Every offseason, the Rays seem to add one or two bullpen arms at a reduced rate and then watch those pitchers turn into dominant closers and setup men who play a big role in the team’s success. One pitcher with a chance to fit that profile is the recently-signed Roberto Hernandez. But the Rays are still in the hunt for relief help and are currently scouring the market looking for the right reliever at the right price. Could Brandon Lyon be exactly what they’re looking for?
Lyon, who turned 33 in August, is coming off a career year between the Astros and Blue Jays, going 4-2 with a 3.10 ERA, a 9.3 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 67 relief appearances and 61 innings pitched. It was only the third-best ERA he has ever managed in a season behind 2009 and 2010, but he set career-bests in both FIP and xFIP at 3.23 and 3.94 respectively. Why was that? Because it was a great year for Lyon, but a completely uncharacteristic one. For his career, Lyon has a 6.1 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9, which amounts to a 4.08 career FIP and a 4.36 xFIP. He struck out 9.3 batters per 9 innings, shattering his previous career-high of 7.6, walked his fewest batters per 9 since 2008, and also managed a homer rate below his career norms. How did that happen? Lyon essentially became a different pitcher.
Lyon is a pitcher with a history of arm trouble, undergoing ulnar nerve transposition surgery on his elbow back in 2004, surgery to remove a drained cyst in his shoulder in 2010, and surgery on a torn labrum in his shoulder in 2011 that sidelined him nearly the entire year. After all those injuries, Lyon’s velocity isn’t what it used to be. According to Brooks Baseball, Lyon has averaged 92.56 MPH on his fastball since Pitch F/X data first came into being in 2007. (We’re averaging in what Brooks calls his “sinker” and “fastball.”) In 2012, though, he was down to just 90.82 MPH, and with that much velocity gone, Lyon had to make adjustments. For his career, Lyon has used his fastball 49% of the time, his cutter 28%, his curveball 21%, and his changeup at a 2% clip. In 2012, though, Lyon was vastly different, throwing his fastball for just 34% of his pitches, his cutter 38%, his changeup 26%, and his changeup 2%, and the results were incredible.
Wait a second- did Lyon really change so much in 2012? Lyon’s fastball velocity actually fell to 90.45 and he began using it less, using his cutter as his primary fastball at a 39% usage rate. In 2010, he used it even more, 50% of the time. You have to go back to 2009 to the last time Lyon used his conventional fastballs more often than his fastball. Look at the difference between Lyon’s pitch usage from 2007 to 2009 and from 2010 to 2012.You might as well be looking at a different pitcher- but if you add up the fastball and cutter values and consider them all his fastball, he’s basically been exactly the same. Knowing that his fastball velocity isn’t what he used to be, Lyon has tried to counteract that by using his cutter, which was one mile per hour slower than his fastball in 2012 at 89.51 MPH compared to 90.82 MPH but featured better movement, especially its late action down in the zone to help force weak contact and the occasional swing-and-miss pitch. But the added use of the cutter alone can’t be the only reason that Lyon begun to strike out so many more batters than he had in the past in 2012.
For his career, Lyon’s cutter has been a better swing-and-miss pitch than his fastball, generating whiffs 9.5% of the time compared to 7.5%, but Lyon’s whiff rate on his cutter dropped to 8.7% as he used it more in 2012 and even the full 2% difference overall can’t be the only reason Lyon’s strikeout rate was so much higher than ever before in 2012. The major difference was instead his curveball. Instead, the major difference was his curveball, which forced a swing-and-miss 21.8% of the time in 2012 compared to 14.4% previously. Why in the world did that suddenly happen? Part of reason is that Lyon has thrown his curveball a little harder the past few years, throwing it at an average of 78.6 MPH in 2012 compared to 77.5 MPH for his career. He has tightened it up to feature less depth but sharper break, allowing him to miss more bats with it. But even that isn’t a new development- Lyon has thrown his fastball 78 MPH or harder every year since 2010, not coincidentally the same year he began to use his cutter as his primary fastball. Why did Lyon change his curveball that season? Essentially because of the old baseball adage of either being a fastball-curveball pitch or a sinker-slider. Conventional fastballs and curveballs work together well because they’re polar opposites- one is hard and moves away from a same-side batter while the other is softer and moves in the opposite direction. Sinkers and sliders are a nice combination because they both have good downward movement, but the sinker moves enough to force groundballs while the slider’s sharper break helps force swings and misses. Those are certainly not the only types of pitchers- for example, Scott Kazmir‘s primary pitches were a fastball and a slider- but you can group a majority of major league pitchers into those two categories. Wait a second- we’re talking about a pitcher in Lyon with a primary cutter here! But Lyon’s cutter features late movement to make it more comparable to a sinker than a regular fastball, and as such it makes more sense to pair it with a pitch that’s closer to a slider. Pitch F/X still calls Lyon’s breaking ball a curveball and rightfully so, but it’s sharper, tighter break makes it more similar to a slider than the big-breaking pitch it had been before. It works out well for Lyon that he doesn’t throw a regular slider because the cutter’s sharper movement makes his curveball’s still considerable depth an asset when he’s trying to get strikeouts.
OK, we’ve made it clear that Brandon Lyon had a career year in 2012 because he became a completely different pitcher, using his cutter more and his fastball less while throwing his curveball with sharper action to force more swings-and-misses. But why did Lyon’s breakthrough only happen in 2012? Well, in 2012 he was hurt and pitched in only 15 games, but after missing time from surgery to remove a cyst in 2010, he pitched a full season for the Astros, going 6-6 with a 3.12 ERA, a 6.2 K/9, a 3.6 BB/9, and a 0.2 HR/9 (and also 20 saves) in 79 appearances and 78 innings pitched. Lyon’s walk rate was higher than his career average and his homer rate was way down (although excellent luck on flyballs staying in the park had more to do with that than anything), but his strikeout rate stayed right by his career average at 6.2 per 9 innings. If Lyon was already throwing his cutter and his newfound curveball, why didn’t everything click then? The answer is simply that Lyon wasn’t used to his new curveball yet in 2010, throwing it for a ball 39.5% of the time, easily the highest mark of his career, and the issues were that Lyon had trouble locating it and also that Lyon pitched so darn much, making 79 appearances in 2010, that everyone he faced had a good idea of how he pitched and knew to lay off of it, exposing his inexperience with the pitch even more. In 2012, though, he finally had an idea of where it was going, throwing it for a ball just 31.0% of the time, and largely out-of-date scouting reports couldn’t prevent hitters from whiffing again and again as Lyon looked truly overpowering for the first time in his career. The question now is whether Lyon can repeat such performance.
The scouting report on Lyon back in 2010 likely said something like “solid breaking ball but struggles to control it.” Now, that isn’t the case as Lyon’s breaking ball has vastly improved and teams across baseball now recognize that. Lyon was helped out in 2012 by splitting the season between the Astros in the NL and the Blue Jays in the AL so no one got too much of a look at him. Now teams have a couple of years of data to look at the transformation of Lyon into a pitcher who works primary with a high-80’s cutter and a sharp curveball in the high-70’s. If hitters can do a better job recognizing Lyon’s curveball and run into a misplaced cutter, Lyon will get hit hard. But the Rays already have a pitcher who is an example of the fact that pitchers like Lyon can achieve sustained success: Joel Peralta. Peralta’s fastball barely scrapes the low-90’s and his curveball is a below-average pitch, but he’s been excellent for the Rays the last two years thanks to his outstanding splitter. Lyon is not about to strike out 11 batters per 9 innings like Peralta did in 2012, but he has the ability to be successful in a similar vein with his cutter, fastball, and curveball. Maybe Lyon isn’t even going to strike out a batter per inning like he did in 2012, but he has the ability to strike out more batters than he did in the past while keeping the walks down, and although Lyon may allow more home runs (just like Peralta allowed a 1.2 HR/9 in 2012), he can still be an effective pitcher.
What about the cost it will take to sign Lyon? Usually pitchers coming off career-years get nice contracts, and you’d expect Lyon to get a contract as least as lucrative as the nearly 5 million dollar salary he’s averaged the last four years and probably more. However, with injury concerns and Lyon’s loss in fastball velocity, teams have be scared that a collapse could be coming whether through arm issues or poor performance and Lyon’s value is not as high as you would normally expect. But that’s something that a team like the Rays could be ready to pounce on. If the Rays could get Lyon on a contract that would guarantee him 3 million dollars or less, he could potentially be an outstanding value to the Rays as a fourth dependable late-inning arm behind Fernando Rodney, Peralta, and Jake McGee and make an already incredible bullpen even better. Unlike pitchers like Rodney, Peralta, and Kyle Farnsworth, Lyon is no reclamation project as he’s been successful the past several years and especially in 2012. He may not a pitcher the Rays will be able to put as feather in their cap as someone whose career they turned around, but the type of performance Lyon could give them next season is certainly worth the trade-off.