The Kansas City Royals weren’t terribly active in the free agency market in the offseason. This was maddening for a lot of fans, but considering the state of the team and organization they were left with after John Sherman booted Dayton Moore from his office of 16 years, it made sense. And here we are in mid-May, with the Royals on pace to lose north of 110 games on the year. You could add Mike Trout and Aaron Judge and Spencer Strider to this team and they still probably wouldn’t end up with a winning record.
So it was with some interest that the Royals did end up signing Jordan Lyles, a free agent pitcher, to the tune of an $18 million contract over two years. Shortly after that happened, Michael Baumann at Fangraphs wrote one of my favorite pieces of writing about the Royals all year, noting that Lyles’ ability to eat innings, regardless of the experience therein, was what the Royals were after:
Other pitchers, and teams, are not so fortunate. Their outs are acquired at great cost of labor, in the steaming August heat for a team that’s known since Tax Day that it’s going to go 58-104. These pitchers cultivate outs, drag them up the slopes of a volcano, and lob them into the caldera. Only then can they, and their teammates, be released from the day’s work and go home.
...Will Lyles transform the Royals’ pitching staff into a winner? Most likely not. But this isn’t a team that needs to win. This is a team that needs to put outs into the volcano so they can go home at the end of the night. That is an area in which Lyles has special expertise, particularly in the past four years.
See, Lyles is a bad big league pitcher, and he has been a bad big league pitcher his entire career. Per Baseball-Reference, Lyles has accrued -1.4 WAR over his 13 big league seasons, the pitching equivalent of Willie Bloomquist—someone who has to pitch because someone has to pitch.
Judging solely by innings pitched, the Lyles Era in Kansas City has been a success. Lyles has pitched more innings than anybody else on the staff, and is thus far the only pitcher to throw over 50 innings on the season. If he continues this through 33 starts, Lyles will end up at over 190 innings on the year, a feat which hasn’t happened from a Kansas City pitcher since Ian Kennedy in 2016.
Unfortunately, the Royals are not in the business of having pitchers throw baseballs to their catchers and slowly collect outs in the process. They are, theoretically, in the business of winning baseball games and being a solid entertainment product. The 2023 Royals are doing neither, and they have been doing neither for half a dozen years. Lyles certainly isn’t contributing to those goals—the Royals have lost every start he’s made this year, and Lyles has only once given up fewer than four runs in an outing.
You can see why the Royals went out and signed Lyles—they can’t trust anybody else on their pitching staff, which is sadly not an exaggeration. Kris Bubic got hurt. Brady Singer is having the worst season of his career. Scott Barlow is having the worst season of his career. Brad Keller is arguably having the worst season of his career. Zack Greinke is having his worst season since the George W. Bush administration. Meanwhile, the Omaha Storm Chasers are 15-22 this season and only seven of their 23 pitchers has an ERA below 4.00.
But what is so unbelievably frustrating about Lyles is that by signing him, the Royals locked in the experience of having a crappy pitcher. No one is astounded by how bad Lyles has been; he’s a 32-year-old whose career ERA stands at 5.12.
Maybe Lyles is a necessary evil, but I don’t know about that. He certainly seems unnecessary. Yes, someone has to pitch those innings. But it doesn’t have to be one person. It doesn’t have to be Lyles. The Royals didn’t need to spend $18 million to, as Baumann wrote, toss the innings into the volcano. Just think to yourself: what would the Tampa Bay Rays have done in this situation? Easy: they’d give opportunities to flawed and inexperienced pitchers with promise, toss them into the volcano, and if they didn’t survive the Rays would just move on to the next one.
If the argument against it is “but those players might be really bad,” well, I’m telling you now, Lyles is already really bad and Royals fans know it. Look; there are a billion ways to get bad big league pitching. The Royals shot straight: they got bad big league pitching on purpose, and at a large price tag, but did so when other solutions were on the table. Maybe those solutions aren’t any better than Lyles. Fine. But it would have shown some spark of creativity that you would think a team that knows it isn’t going to be good would have perhaps cultivated.