Once Jordan Lyles found out he wouldn’t start the final game of the season for the Orioles, the right-handed veteran vowed to spend what could be his last day at the Camden Yards clubhouse like he did the previous 161.
Lyles, who finished an inning short of tying his career high of 180, set aside the looming offseason decision the Orioles front office will make. He focused on what boils down to being a “good teammate”, he said, in being present and supportive. He went around to the young pitchers who had leaned on him all season and told them that just because the season was ending didn’t mean their conversations wouldn’t.
The 32-year-old has been in the majors long enough to understand the business. Lyles has played for seven franchises in various states – but most often as part of young rebuilding teams. When Lyles signed with Baltimore last offseason, that was the expectation.
Some of that, at least, was true: Orioles were young. But unlike other young teams Lyles has been on, he was struck by the professionalism of a group of players who hadn’t been professional for a long time. The way they soaked up his tips. The way they asked questions. The way they competed on the diamond.
It created one of the most enjoyable seasons of Lyles’ career.
Within five days of the end of the World Series, the Orioles front office has a decision to make. They could choose the $11 million team option for an additional year included in Lyles’ contract or exercise the $1 million buyout. Lyles won’t have a say in how the Orioles choose. But if he did, it would be to stay here.
“Money aside, I’d love to be back in this clubhouse,” Lyles said, noting the advantage of having a clear No. 1 receiver to Adley Rutschman’s prowess. “The starting staff, the young people who have risen to power this year, it’s nice. They are good to be around. It’s not easy to say for 180 days spent with the same people. These guys make it easy.
There are strong arguments for Lyles returning to Baltimore. A year after giving up the most home runs in the majors as a member of the Texas Rangers, Lyles joined the Orioles and led the team in innings and wins. He lowered his ERA to 4.42 and completed two strikeouts before tying his career high of 146.
Lyles had one of the best seasons of his career, throwing a career-high 2,988 pitches while eating 179 innings. He completed a starting rotation that featured mostly inexperienced arms, and he won a T-shirt with his face and the words “Best Dad Ever” on it from young pitchers on Father’s Day.
Perhaps the latter is what Lyles will appreciate the most.
“I’m always proud to be someone some youngsters can lean on, especially in the starting squad,” Lyles said. “We spent a lot of time together. Getting them comfortable is kind of my goal, because when they’re comfortable they’ll throw better. It’s going to make their days a lot easier, which translates to better pitching. … But overall, I’m very happy, very lucky, to be part of such a leap of growth for everyone.
Right-hander Tyler Wells, who returned to a rotation role after working out after an injury in the bullpen last year, was closer to Lyles than anyone. Right-handers Dean Kremer and Kyle Bradish have stumbled — for Kremer in 2021, Bradish in his rookie year — to become staples in the rotation. Right-handers Austin Voth and Spenser Watkins have shown flashes of reliability, and prospects DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez are expected to compete for rotational roles in spring training.
Add left-hander John Means, who is expected to return from Tommy John’s elbow reconstruction surgery midway through the 2023 season, and any off-season acquisitions. This creates a congested rotation – but it’s a good problem to have for a team looking to take the next step.
Still, it begs the question: Where does Lyles fit into this group?
“I think looking at what Jordan has done for us this year, it was more than exactly what we expected when we signed him, and he’s been a huge influence on our staff this year,” said Executive Vice President and General Manager Mike Elias. . “We’re going to take the business side of the business as it comes. But in a baseball sense, I want to thank him and congratulate him on 2022.”
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The on-court accomplishments set Lyles up for an offseason focused on adding “a tick or two” of extra speed. Any extra punches on his fastball should also help his off-speed throws. Lyles said his change was one of his biggest off-season priorities, finding a way to make it more consistent.
Lyles threw the change more frequently than he has since 2018, and he adjusted his delivery slightly late in the season to improve a pitch against which batters hit .302. Some days, “it’s average,” says Lyles. “Some days it’s above average, and some days I don’t even want to watch it.”
But for the most part, Lyles won’t do any drastic revisions. It likes where its pitch points are – a measurement labeling each pitch on their horizontal and vertical motion results. The goal is to have as much separation as possible between the pitches.
Even if the Orioles turn down Lyles’ team option, there’s a chance they could re-sign Lyles on a deal worth less money. The impact he brought to Baltimore was perhaps felt most in the clubhouse, and that’s where his mind turns when he considers his favorite aspects of the 2022 season.
During a 10-game winning streak in July, Lyles recalls walking into a noisy clubhouse every night. He’s not about to forget the excitement that surrounds him as a group of young players enjoyed their first period of focus to win.
“I’m very happy that I made this decision last offseason to sign here,” Lyles said.
It is not yet known whether he will be back for another go-around. But Lyles hopes the memories don’t end there.