Lance Lynn, the Same As He Ever Was, Just With a Twist

Lance Lynn has been among the best pitchers in the majors since the moment he signed with the Rangers back in 2019. Before that season, Lynn accumulated 16.9 WAR in 1,134.1 innings, good for a rate of 2.7 WAR per 180 IP, the epitome of a very good mid-rotation starter. He was remarkably consistent across those seasons, first for the Cardinals from 2011-17 and then for the Twins and Yankees in ’18. The winter after his partial season in New York, Lynn signed with the Rangers for a modest (by quality veteran standards) $30 million over three years. This was a perfectly reasonable contract given his output prior to 2019; if anything, it was a little light. Lynn had proven time and again that he could effectively eat innings for playoff-caliber clubs. From 2012-18, he threw 176.0, 201.2, 203.2, 175.1, 186.1, and 156.2 innings; again, a paragon of consistency.

Starting in 2019, Lynn found another gear. In his first season in Arlington, he posted 6.7 WAR on the back of a minuscule 66 FIP-. He has not looked back since: from 2019 through this season, Lynn is fifth overall in WAR, with 9.9 wins to his name, narrowly edging out Zack Wheeler. The only pitchers with better results have been Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber, and Max Scherzer. Much of that production can be attributed to continuing to soak up innings; Lynn is fourth in innings pitched in that time frame. But he has also been excellent on a rate basis. From 2019-21, he has posted the sixth lowest ERA- among starting pitchers and the ninth lowest FIP-. His production is the confluence of continuing to be a workhorse and upping the ante in terms of his per start effectiveness.

Lynn’s salary and the Rangers place in their rebuilding cycle made Lynn an obvious trade candidate this past winter. Lynn’s contract and the White Sox wanting to (let me be nice) maintain “payroll flexibility” while also making a playoff push made the player and club a perfect match. These factors led Chicago to send Dane Dunning and Avery Weems to the Rangers for the last year of Lynn (and his rib-smashing aesthetic). As one can imagine, given his place on the WAR leaderboard through the 2021 season, Lynn has continued to excel on the Southside. He is striking out 28.1% of the batters he faces while posting a walk rate of just 7.0% through 12 starts and a park adjusted ERA 64% better than league average. He has been everything the White Sox could ask for and more. His continued success might make you believe that Lynn is humming along, picking up right where he left off after dominant 2019 and ’20 showings.

This sentiment is mostly true, but Lynn made a couple of notable tweaks to his pitch arsenal upon his arrival in Chicago:

Lance Lynn Pitch Usage
2018 1.9 9.1 11.6 44.9 32.5
2019 3.0 9.5 16.2 54.1 17.2
2020 1.1 8.4 22.2 50.2 18.1
2021 5.5 2.9 31.2 43.3 17.1
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Lynn has and continues to rely on his bevy of fastballs to dominate hitters. No other pitcher among qualified starters has thrown the combination of a four-seamer, sinker, and cutter as often as Lynn. In fact, only eight have thrown each pitch at least 10% of the time and Chris Bassitt is the only other pitcher to have thrown each at least 15% of the time. Breaking and offspeed pitches made up no more than 12% of Lynn’s total offerings from 2018-20, and this phenomenon has been accelerated this season. In 2021, Lynn is only throwing his changeup 5.5% of the time and his curveball 2.9% of the time, with the latter a massive departure from prior seasons. He has steadily increased his cutter usage across these seasons (like many other notable 2021 performers); it is now up to 31.2%. This has mostly come at the expense of the aforementioned curveball and four-seamer, long his preferred offering. This change seems to have had the desired effect: per Baseball Savant, his whiff rate on his four-seam fastball is up to 32.2% from 29.3% in 2020 and his cutter has followed suit with a whiff rate of 25.9% after 21.4% in 2020. Interestingly, despite cutters in general playing as a platoon neutral pitch, much of the increase in Lynn’s cutter usage has been to right-handed batters.

Lance Lynn Pitch Usage by Batter Handedness
Batter Stands Season CH CU FC FF SI
L 2018 4.4 12.5 6.2 43.5 33.4
R 2018 0.1 6.5 15.6 46 31.8
L 2019 5.2 10.9 14.7 53.9 15.3
R 2019 0.6 8.0 17.9 54.3 19.2
L 2020 2.2 7.4 24.2 53.3 12.9
R 2020 0.1 9.3 20.3 47.2 23.1
L 2021 9.6 4.2 28.0 43.2 14.9
R 2021 1.2 1.4 34.5 43.4 19.4
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

He threw about 20% more cutters to left-handed hitters than those who hit from the right sided (relative to each batter handedness) but that split has basically flipped in 2021, a trend that runs against the general trends across the majors. But you cannot argue with the results:

Lance Lynn Platoon Splits
Season Batter Stands wOBA
2019 L .322
2019 R .287
2020 L .253
2020 R .339
2021 L .285
2021 R .234
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

He posted fairly normal platoon splits in 2019 but struggled to deal with right-handers in the shortened pandemic campaign. Cue the new reliance on the cutter: thus far, right-handed batters have posted a .234 wOBA in 2021 against Lynn, a 105-point drop from last season. Obviously, we are talking about a small sample of starts in 2020 and ’21, but Lynn has seemed to make a conscious effort to right the ship against right-handed opposition. He throws his cutter 5.5 mph slower than his four-seamer so better incorporating the pitch into his repertoire gives him two pitches in his changeup’s velocity band to keep hitters off balance. The cutter and changeup also play nicely off each other because Lynn can mirror their movement and has shown the ability to leverage seam-shifted wake with both the cutter and changeup to fool hitters as the pitches traverse towards the plate.

This subtle deception has overwhelmed right-handed hitters. The cutter has induced swinging strikes against righties at a 14.6% clip and has held that same opposition to a .234 wOBA, coincidently the exact same as their overall line facing Lynn. He has found great success keeping the cutter away from right-handed hitters, locating the pitch primarily towards the lower outside corner and away from barrels.

His top two pitches in terms of usage, the four-seamer and cutter, have been the most effective in terms of generating whiffs, as I alluded to above. Those pitches have similar distributions of spin axes, as evidenced by the chart I introduced in the context of the cutter and changeup. Perhaps some of the effectiveness can be attributed to the physical similarities of the pitches. Of all his sequences, those involving either/both of the four-seamer and cutter have been among Lynn’s best pairs:

Lance Lynn Most Used Pitch Sequences in 2021
Sequence Sequence% SwStr% CS% CSW%
FF-FF 21.6 16 19.1 35.1
FF-FC 13.1 10.5 22.8 33.3
FC-FC 12.2 14.2 17 31.2
FC-FF 11.9 6.8 11.7 18.5
SI-FF 6.8 10.2 5.1 15.3
FF-SI 6.7 3.4 17.2 20.6
FC-SI 5.3 2.2 21.7 23.9
SI-SI 4.3 8.1 16.2 24.3
SI-FC 3.8 0 18.2 18.2
FF-CH 2.3 0 35 35
CH-FF 2.1 5.6 0 5.6
CH-FC 2 5.9 0 5.9
FC-CH 1.4 33.3 25 58.3
CH-SI 1 11.1 0 11.1
CU-FC 1 0 33.3 33.3
CU-FF 0.9 0 25 25
FF-CU 0.9 0 0 0
CH-CH 0.7 16.7 16.7 33.4
SI-CH 0.6 0 20 20
CU-SI 0.5 25 0 25
CU-CH 0.3 0 0 0
FC-CU 0.3 0 33.3 33.3
SI-CU 0.2 0 0 0
CU-CU 0.1 0 0 0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
First pitch listed in sequence is the given pitch, second is the pitch that preceded it

In some ways, Lynn is the same as he ever was. His most used pitch is still his four-seamer, which has also been his most prolific in terms of generating whiffs. But Lynn struggled to put right-handed hitters away last year and clearly, he has made an effort to remedy the issue. The cutter has always been a pitch he’s had in his bag of tricks, but as his career has progressed, he has turned to it more, leveraging its deception with seam-shifted wake to flummox the opposition.

For a team that has World Series aspirations, the trade for Lance Lynn has worked out superbly for the White Sox through two and a half months. While some may quibble with trading away two talented pitchers for a one year rental because of his bargain contract — the sort of penny-pinching move that can have negative effects down the road — it is hard to argue that bringing in Lynn has done anything but solidify Chicago’s position as one of the premier contenders in the American League, especially given some of the injuries the club has suffered to its lineup. Lynn made the necessary adjustments to maintain his status as one of the league’s best pitchers. Hopefully for the White Sox and their fans, his presence will help bolster a deep postseason run.

Carmen is a part-time contributor to FanGraphs. An engineer by education and trade, he spends too much of his free time thinking about baseball.

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2 years ago

I really don’t think this trade was about saving money over the next 5 or 6 years by dumping Dunning. It was more about having at least 3 SP they could depend on.

Prior to the trade, the White Sox starting options looked pretty iffy – Giolito and Keuchel were locks. Then there was Cease, Dunning, and Reynaldo Lopez. Rodon had been non-tendered but had not resigned, and Kopech and Crochet existed too. They had used 9 different starters in a short 2020 season and had the same question that they ended last year with: “Who starts game 3 of a playoff series?” They would have to hope somebody stepped forward. If they would have known that Rodon and Cease would be both good and healthy, they probably don’t make the move and Dunning is the fifth starter, but that was far from a given. It really still is. Sure, Lynn’s contract made him more valuable, but they had also tried to throw money at Zack Wheeler and were linked to just about every starter available as a FA or in trade the last two years. They were determined to pick up somebody so they could have at least three guys in the rotation they could count on and they clearly had to give up something to get it. It’s not like they could have picked up even a pre-2019 Lance Lynn for spare parts like Jonathon Steiver or Jimmy Lambert, who’s ceilings probably aren’t even back of the rotation innings eaters.

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

This was a classic push your chips in move, since Lynn was almost certainly going to be better than Dunning in 2021 and Dunning is a young guy who might need to build up innings. I don’t see how anyone could see it as anything other than that. Dunning, as a pre-arb player, is definitely more of a bargain than Lynn is.

I don’t necessarily like trading a guy who will be in your rotation for the same length of time as your entire position-player core. If you were to critique it I think that’s the only real angle. But also, it has worked out so far.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

He’s a brute but a smart pitcher who’s helped this staff tremendously. His advice early this season that helped Cease overcome his issues with overthinking and being self aware on the mound: “Forget that crap, throw the ball to the target.”

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

I agree that it was more about “win now” than money although of course there was a reason they went for this trade rather than bid against the Dodgers for Trevor Bauer. I’m not mad about it though, I want the Sox to be aggressive and you have to take some risks to win a World Series.

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

I would hope that Lance Lynn would start game 1 of a playoff series. He is the clear ace, regardless of Gio’s last year.

2 years ago
Reply to  carter

Gio was great in 2019 and is the leader of the staff. Having Lynn and Rodon as a 2/3 is not a problem for the White Sox and arguing over “Which ace starts first?” means the team is good.

2 years ago
Reply to  carter

I’m a broken record here, but Lynn is a bulldog-one of best competitors in baseball. He is a must start.

Also no one has mentioned that Lynn is going to get offered, and reject, the QO, netting the ChiSox a comp pick in addition to the season of Lynn, for Dunning

2 years ago
Reply to  motleycrue84

No one has mentioned the QO because it isn’t possible — Lynn already received and rejected a QO from the Cardinals after the 2017 season.

2 years ago
Reply to  tonywagner

Right on, completely forgot about that

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

World Series ready and not the time to be cute.

Hahn understands this doesn’t happen often so they got a reliable, innings eating bulldog #2 for a season while giving up a question mark with some promise in Dunning. Hell yes!

2 years ago
Reply to  mbs2001

It could be any, but Lynn is better imo. Barring a collapse he won’t take QO