Lyles emerging as team around him takes off
Colorado's MLB-best offense, brilliant defense boosting young pitcher
DENVER -- Jordan Lyles chooses his words carefully. He grew up in the Astros organization, and although he was traded to the Rockies last winter, he still has plenty of friends in Houston.
Lyles is not looking to offend any of them. There, however, is no denying that the Lyles who has taken the mound for Colorado so far this season may be pitching the way he always has, but there is a lot of difference in the results.
Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has hit against Lyles the past three years. Now he's fielding behind him. Is there a difference?
"He'd be the one who could answer that best," Tulowitzki said. "Could be he's older. Could be it's a better team."
The Rockies are a pretty good team right now. They have equaled the second best start in franchise history (20-14), and they have done it despite starting pitchers Brett Anderson and Tyler Chatwood being on the disabled list, and Jhoulys Chacin having been activated only long enough to have made his season debut on Sunday.
A big part of that is because Lyles, who wasn't on Colorado's 25-man Opening Day roster, has pitched unlike he did at any point in his three years in Houston.
That was never more evident than the Rockies' 8-2 victory against the Texas Rangers at Coors Field on Monday night. Lyles threw 105 pitches, the most by any Colorado pitcher this season, before departing after Adrian Beltre's leadoff single in the ninth. His final line was eight innings, seven hits and two runs.
And that was against a lineup that wasn't a lot different than Lyles faced in his three years in Houston, where he was 0-5 with a 9.82 ERA in six career starts against the Rangers for the Astros. He had faced seven of the eight hitters in Texas' starting lineup, and six of them had a .333 career average against him.
"There are so many different scenarios," Lyles said when asked why the reversal of fortunes. "I'm with a different team."
It's a lot different team.
The Rockies have an offense that is averaging a best-in-baseball 5.7 runs per game -- 7.4 per game at Coors Field. And they have a defense that has a .987 fielding percentage, behind only Cincinnati in the NL, and leads the Majors with 41 double plays, including four on Monday night.
It's a scenario that is perfect for Lyles, whose strength is a sinker, and who has, as Colorado manager Walt Weiss explained, "a very talented arm."
And it was that arm, not Lyles' career 14-29 win-loss record and 5.35 ERA over the three previous seasons in Houston that had the Rockies make sure they got the 23-year-old, along with outfielder Brandon Barnes, from the Astros in the offseason trade for center fielder Dexter Fowler.
"When you get an opportunity to get an arm like this, at this age, you take it," said Weiss. "There's a whole lot of reason to like the kid, even though he had his struggles at a young age."
There's no sign of a hangover in Colorado from the nightmares in Houston, where Lyles never had a winning record in three seasons and never had an ERA below 5.09.
Lyles is now 4-0 with a 2.62 ERA in seven starts for the Rockies, and more impressively, he is 3-0 with a 0.83 ERA in three starts at Coors Field.
"I'm making better pitches with guys in scoring position," said Lyles. "I haven't been too good at that in the past. I don't know the reason, but I'm better this year."
A lot better. Lyles had given up a .321 average with runners in scoring positions during his days with the Astros. Hitters are 5-for-24 against him in that situation this year, a .208 average.
Why? More confidence makes a pitcher more aggressive in the strike zone.
"It is still the same stuff," said Lyles. "I'm not an overpowering guy. It's been the same game plan."
And then came the admission.
"A major reason is the other guys in here," Lyles said. "I have to do my part, and don't have to do any more. This is a talented club. They do the rest. This offense is nice to pitch behind, and the infield defense is one of the best in the National League. Every night they make special plays.
"I saw that in Spring Training. I just have to get guys to hit the ball on the ground. Those infielders do the rest."
And it hasn't changed in the regular season.
Lyles has done his job, and the players behind him in the field are making sure he enjoys the benefits.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.