When the Houston Astros drafted Jordan Lyles with the 38th overall pick in last year's draft, it's safe to say some people were surprised.
“Yet another guy who few others had this high. Boy oh boy,” said Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein on draft day last June.
While some prominent analysts may not have seen it in Lyles, Astros scouting director Bobby Heck did.
“(Lyles has) a lot of the things I look for pitching. It's a big body. It's athletic. He throws downhill. He has command of his fastball. He's a three-sport athlete. He's got the ability to change speed. He's a strike thrower. All the ingredients for me that had the look of a starter. He's got a very high ceiling and he does project to be in a major-league rotation,” Heck told The Houston Chronicle last June.
A year after the draft, it's the Astros who look smart. The 18-year-old Lyles has spent his first full season in the minors pitching for Lexington of the Low-A South Atlantic League and he has established himself as the top pitching prospect in the organization.
Lyles' overall line is hard to argue with. He strikes hitters out (29.6%), he doesn't walk them (4.4%), and his 2.50 FIP ranks third in the South Atlantic League.
More impressive is that his numbers are only getting better. Even as teams get more looks at Lyles, their level of success against him has only gotten worse.
He's missed more bats as the season has progressed. He fanned 23.3% in April and 28.2% in May. He's opened June with an even bigger bang, striking out 45.7% through his first two starts of the month.
Lyles' walk rate was never a problem, but he's gotten stingier with the free passes. In the first month the year, he walked 7.0% but cut it to 4.2% in May and has yet to walk a batter in June.
While his groundball rate isn't great (44%), it's gotten higher throughout the year. It sat at 38% in April, 47% in May and so far in June rests at a more-acceptable 50%.
Some pitchers have statlines distorted by their home park, but Lexington's has been close to neutral the past couple seasons.
Others can post gaudy numbers in the low minors but lack the stuff to back them up.
That's not as much of a concern with Lyles. Seen as a prospect with considerable projection, he has undoubtedly been helped by a gradual increase in his fastball velocity.
As a junior in high school, his heater clocked in at 86-87 MPH and it rose to 88-90 MPH as a senior. Listed at six-foot-four, 185 pounds last year, Lyles checked into spring training at 215 pounds and his fastball was getting pumped into the catchers mitt at 94-95 MPH.
He also has a curveball and a changeup, but both remain works in progress and will need further refinement as he faces more advanced competition. The progress he makes with them will go a long way into dictacting what kind of pitcher he becomes, but both have been points of emphasis this year, especially the curve.
Lyles has the makings of a top pitching prospect. He has the youth, a textbook pitchers frame, the stuff, a low walk rate, and a high strikeout rate. With the way he has thrown the ball, he's well on his way to being viewed as a top 100 prospect heading into next season.
His initial success provides a lot of optimism and time is on his side. Lyles may have been under-hyped when he was drafted, but that won't be the case much longer.
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