They say the hitters will heat up with the weather.
Well, the hitters better hope for 110-degree summer days with 30 mph gusts blowing straight out to the outfield, because the young pitchers who keep on coming are making their jobs more difficult than hitting a pea with a toothpick.
I watched the major league debut of 20-year-old Astros right-hander Jordan Lyles on Tuesday, and the kid deserved better than a no-decision after taking a shutout against the Cubs into the eighth inning. He lost the shutout after a leadoff double and his own throwing error on the ensuing sacrifice bunt (he rushed a throw trying to get the lead runner at third base), but that shouldn't detract from a sterling effort that saw him show confidence, poise, control and a masterful knowledge of how to get batters out.
Lyles didn't walk a batter and allowed just five hits in his seven-plus innings, throwing an economical 92 pitches. Maybe I was influenced by the brick-red jersey, but Lyles resembled Roy Oswalt to me, pushing off a low leg drive to generate his power. His best sequence of the night came in the fifth inning, after Blake DeWitt's blooper fell in front of Carlos Lee (that's hard to believe) for a double and a sacrifice moved him to third. Facing Geovany Soto, Lyles spun a beautiful curve for a swinging strike, threw a fastball inside for strike two, and then another curve that broke down and away that Soto missed by several inches. He then struck out Carlos Zambrano (hitting .360, by the way) to escape the jam.
"That first inning I went out there and got the ball from the third baseman, I just stood on the mound and took it all in," Lyles said after the game. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime type of opportunity, and I couldn't ask for anything better."
Indeed, not a bad debut for the major leagues' youngest player. And a good day for the Lyles family -- his parents and four brothers all made it to Wrigley Field for the game.
Only 20? Where are all these kids coming from? Clayton Kershaw, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Michael Pineda, Zach Britton, Madison Bumgarner, Jhoulys Chacin, Rick Porcello, Mat Latos -- these guys are all 23 or younger and already carving up big league hitters. Craig Kimbrel, Drew Storen, Neftali Feliz and Jordan Walden are established closers with high-octane heat. Julio Teheran has started a couple of games for the Braves. His rookie teammate, Mike Minor, started Tuesday and, while not as effective as Lyles, looked like a polished lefty throwing low 90s fastballs and changeups that tailed away from right-handed batters.
As for the Astros, needless to say they need a burst of talent and energy. Since they reached the World Series in 2005, there have been 153 seasons in the National League in which a player recorded a WAR (wins above replacement level) of 4.0 or greater, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Only six of those belonged to Astros: two Oswalt years, and one each from Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Lance Berkman and Michael Bourn.
A farm system that once thrived on producing All-Stars has dried up. Since Oswalt debuted in 2001, Rodriguez and Hunter Pence are the only solid players who came up through the Astros' system. Lyles and 26-year-old righty Bud Norris are the team's best hope for the future.
The biggest question facing Lyles' long-term outlook is his lack of a blow-it-by-them fastball. His strikeout rate in 16 career Triple-A starts was just 6.3 per nine innings, leading some to wonder how dominant he can be in the major leagues. It's a legitimate question, although keep in mind he's still young enough to learn how to strike out hitters -- similar to how Oakland's Cahill has increased his strikeout rate this season.
On another level, he might not have to strike out more than six batters a game to succeed. Offensive levels in the NL right now are similar to the 1988-92 period, the era after the rabbit ball 1987 season and before offense started trending upward. Over those five seasons, 192 NL pitchers tossed at least 162 innings in one season. Eighty-seven had an ERA of 3.25 or less. Of those 87 pitchers, 44 had a strikeout rate of 6.0 or less per nine innings. If Lyles throws strikes and keeps the ball in the park like he did Tuesday, he's going to be a good one.
Just what the Astros need ... but just what NL batters don't want to hear.
(For more on the Astros, check out our SweetSpot affiliate, Austin's Astros 290 blog.)
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