The poet Elizabeth Bishop once wrote that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” The exception to that rule may be Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jordan Lyles, who has proven it takes a special kind of talent to consistently lose at the major league level. He’s shown, in fact, it’s possible to make a nice career out of it.
While his career has mostly flown under the radar, Lyles was making headlines for the worst possible reasons in 2023. Before Saturday’s 9-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, the Royals had lost all 15 games he had started this season, with Lyles himself going 0-11 in those appearances.
Nobody thought that the trend would reverse on Saturday, not with the Royals – currently at the bottom of the AL Central standings – facing the Rays, who have the best record in the majors. But Lyles finally did enough to keep his team in the game while the Royals offense gave him run support.
It’s safe to say that MLB has never seen a pitcher happier to secure a 1-11 record. By going 0-for-15 in games Lyles started, the Royals managed something that hadn’t happened in 103 years. If the streak kept going on, who knows what records of futility the two could have shattered.
“It was another reminder that shaking hands after games is a lot of fun,” a relieved Lyles said afterward. “Obviously, we haven’t done that when I’ve [started]. It feels really good to win.”
When the Royals signed Lyles to a two-year contract in the offseason, it wasn’t because they thought that he could help him win games. (In fact, it’s not entirely certain they have much interest in doing so this year.) Kansas City had a young pitching staff in desperate need of a veteran who could throw a ton of innings. Royals vice-president JJ Picollo explained the deal by saying Lyles “has shown in the last two years that he can really handle a heavy workload.”
It is, for sure, a very polite way to describe a 32-year-old righthander who boasts a 5.20 ERA and a 67-101 record in a career spanning seven organizations and counting (for context an ERA over 4.40 is considered iffy). However, Lyles – who made 32 starts and pitched 179 innings for the Baltimore Orioles the previous year – sounded at ease with being praised mostly for his rubber-armed reputation.
“Staying on the field,” he rather humbly said after the signing, “I’ve been very fortunate and blessed from that aspect, and that boils down to taking care of yourself in between starts.”
Lyles probably also sounded like he was in good spirits because he was signing a contract that would pay him $17m over the next two years. In MLB, it’s always been obvious that there is plenty of value in being a winning pitcher. What isn’t as well known is that, on occasion, a player can find himself a comfortable niche being a losing pitcher.
Lyles is on pace to earn $50m over the course of 13 seasons once his current Royals contract ends (surviving in the majors for more than 10 years also earns you a handsome pension). This is despite the statistical anomaly that he has never played a full season for a winning MLB team, only tasting success during two (non-sequential) partial seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. He is almost a human symbol of a doomed MLB season. Lyles is a veteran of the purposely terrible 2013 Houston Astros, so the Royals aren’t even the most hapless “rebuilding” team he will end up playing on.
They are still bad, mind you. As of Sunday night, the Royals were 21-56, a worse record than any team in the league other than the Oakland A’s (who are definitely not trying to win games). Given that win-loss ratio, maybe it was inevitable that it would take a while for one of the starting pitchers to appear in his first victory. After all, each starter only takes the field every five games. If you had to guess which of the starters would suffer that fate, you could do worse than assume it was the one who sported a 6.68 ERA (the league average this season is 4.27) but still held an apparently ironclad grip on his rotation spot.
That’s the main reason that Lyles was approaching all sorts of unenviable records: most pitchers with his numbers would eventually be demoted to the bullpen or worse. Lyles is still getting the ball every five days because he’s always available, durable and tends to go deep into games. That’s plenty valuable considering how the modern MLB is practically defined by the nonstop plague of pitching injuries. And a pitcher who can eat innings and save the bullpen can be a valuable commodity. Some of the New York Mets’ comical woes this season are down to the fact that their starters rarely go beyond five innings, taxing their already overworked relief pitchers.
For Kansas City, Lyles is doing what he’s been paid to do throughout his career: eating innings for a non-contending team. As far as his bosses are concerned, this is a “quantity over quality” situation and they should be happy with the results. Lyles leads the club in innings pitched with 91.2 and if he continues at that pace, the Royals won’t even care if he becomes the league’s first 20-game loser since Detroit’s Mike Maroth back in 2014 (something which is still on the table).
Now, “innings pitched” is not a sexy stat, but it’s an oddly relatable one. Most of us will never know what it’s like to throw a 95mph fastball or launch a home run into McCovey Cove. In comparison, Lyles’s skillset feels more down to earth, even if he is a far superior athlete than 99.999% of the population. Innings pitched is a metric for those of us who believe the old axiom that “90% of anything is just showing up.”
Lyles has managed to put together a respectable and lucrative MLB career by just being available and willing to put in a full day’s effort. Along the way, he’s outlasted peers who put up prettier numbers. His is a baseball career that deserves to be appreciated on its own merits.