Lance Lynn’s Still In a Great Situation

Earlier, the Cardinals signed Lance Lynn to a three-year contract, buying out his three years of arbitration eligibility. There’s nothing too remarkable about the deal — it’s good for the team and it’s good for the player, and Lynn’s still all lined up for free agency at the same time if that’s what he wants. Over the past three years, Lynn has been about a nine-win pitcher by actual runs allowed, and he’s been about a nine-win pitcher by his peripherals. He’s thrown more than 600 innings if you include his work in the playoffs. He’s been pretty good, basically, so the Cardinals figure he’ll remain pretty good, and that’s as much as there is to say about that.

The interesting thing about Lynn isn’t his newest contract, or any of his previous contracts. Rather, it’s about his pitching style, and, beyond that, how his pitching style lets him fit in his own particular situation. The stars have aligned for Lynn in the recent past, and based on current indications, 2015 is also going to be favorable. There might not be a better place for Lynn to be pitching than St. Louis.

Many of you might already know about Lynn’s platoon splits, but just in case you don’t, or in case you need a refresher, let’s cover the past five years, and look for pitchers who’ve thrown at least 150 innings against both righties and lefties. Do this and you get a sample of 168 names. Lynn is a right-handed pitcher, who’s been far better against right-handed hitters. By how much? His wOBA has been 58 points better against righties than lefties, ranking 11th in the sample. His FIP has been 1.94 points better, ranking second in the sample. And his xFIP has been 1.83 points better, ranking first in the sample, and ranking first by a lot — second place is at 1.33. The conclusion is obvious: Lynn has an extreme split, for a starter. You always have to regress platoon splits, but regression doesn’t completely erase Lynn’s track record.

So this is a guy who can be exposed against lefties. That much isn’t a mystery. The Cardinals know it, and the Cardinals’ opponents, presumably, have known it. And yet, Lynn has been somewhat protected. A couple years ago, Lynn faced 56% righties. This ranked second-highest among righties with at least 100 innings. Last year, Lynn again faced 56% righties. Compare that to, say, Yu Darvish, who faced 36% righties. The average was 49%. Even though Lynn has shown big platoon splits, teams haven’t been able to stack the lineups against him. Not like they have with Darvish, or Jered Weaver, or Kevin Gausman.

A big factor here is that Lynn’s division has been light on quality left-handed hitting. Last year’s Brewers basically had just Scooter Gennett and Lyle Overbay. The Reds had Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Billy Hamilton, but two struggled due to injury and one struggled not due to injury. On the Pirates, Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Josh Harrison, and Russell Martin were right-handed. And though the Cubs had Anthony Rizzo, the other lefties didn’t exactly strike much fear. The NL Central, lately, has been good for Lance Lynn.

But how about the season ahead? What I can’t do easily is project how teams will structure their lineups on a day-to-day basis. Yet here’s what I could do: go through the team depth charts, and calculate percentages of projected plate appearances going to righties, lefties, and switch-hitters. This will function as a proxy for strength against various pitcher types. And while I know the depth charts aren’t perfect, and the offseason isn’t over, I don’t think too much is going to change between now and the start of the regular season. For the most part, teams are set. There aren’t many remaining starter vacancies.

Here’s the breakdown, and this should be sortable:

Team RH% LH% SH%
Angels 62% 28% 10%
Astros 52% 19% 29%
Athletics 43% 38% 19%
Blue Jays 53% 15% 32%
Braves 39% 35% 26%
Brewers 64% 30% 5%
Cardinals 50% 50% 0%
Cubs 51% 40% 10%
Diamondbacks 75% 18% 7%
Dodgers 49% 33% 18%
Giants 46% 45% 10%
Indians 20% 48% 32%
Mariners 46% 54% 0%
Marlins 64% 28% 8%
Mets 64% 36% 0%
Nationals 72% 22% 6%
Orioles 59% 31% 11%
Padres 69% 25% 6%
Phillies 26% 58% 16%
Pirates 64% 25% 11%
Rangers 49% 42% 8%
Rays 49% 33% 18%
Red Sox 69% 15% 16%
Reds 57% 26% 18%
Rockies 56% 44% 1%
Royals 55% 36% 8%
Tigers 71% 16% 13%
Twins 47% 26% 27%
White Sox 39% 31% 30%
Yankees 25% 50% 25%

Now, because I’m writing about Lance Lynn, let’s focus on lefties plus switch-hitters. Those are the guys Lynn would like to avoid. This table isn’t sortable, because, what else would you sort?

Team LH + SH%
Indians 80%
Yankees 75%
Phillies 74%
White Sox 61%
Braves 61%
Athletics 57%
Giants 54%
Mariners 54%
Twins 53%
Rays 51%
Dodgers 51%
Rangers 51%
Cardinals 50%
Cubs 49%
Astros 48%
Blue Jays 47%
Royals 45%
Rockies 44%
Reds 43%
Orioles 41%
Angels 38%
Pirates 36%
Mets 36%
Marlins 36%
Brewers 36%
Padres 31%
Red Sox 31%
Tigers 29%
Nationals 28%
Diamondbacks 25%

In the NL Central, Lynn’s own team projects to give the most playing time to lefties and switch-hitters, and if all goes according to plan Lynn won’t have to pitch against them. Right behind the Cardinals, we find the Cubs, but then there’s a drop-off until you get to the Reds. Then there’s another big drop-off until you get to the Pirates and Brewers. Once again, it looks like the division will be relatively kind to Lynn and his splits.

But this actually gets even bigger. Take a look at the full divisional breakdown:

  • AL East: 49% lefties + switch-hitters
  • AL Central: 54%
  • AL West: 50%
  • NL East: 47%
  • NL Central: 43% (41% without Cardinals)
  • NL West: 41%

Grouping those:

  • American League: 51% lefties + switch-hitters
  • National League: 44% (43% without Cardinals)

The National League, overall, is considerably more Lynn-friendly than the American League. While this talks only about plate appearances, and not about the quality of the guys taking those plate appearances, I’m assuming that’s a pretty negligible factor. And adjusting things further, by far the biggest rates in the NL of left- or switch-hitting plate appearances belong to the Phillies and Braves, who suck. They’re probably the two worst teams in baseball, and what’s most interesting about them are some of the pitchers. The Braves do have Freddie Freeman, and the Phillies do have Chase Utley, but, then what? Nick Markakis? Domonic Brown? If you wanted to, you could pitch around Freeman and Utley, and you’d probably be just fine.

None of this is nearly as important as Lance Lynn’s actual pitches. Good pitchers should be good regardless of the context, and Lynn’s situation isn’t the only reason why he’s been pretty effective. But Lynn’s in a really good situation, for what he is. There’s absolutely no secret about his weakness, but his opponents can do only so much to try to take advantage. Eventually the National League and the NL Central might become a bit more lefty-heavy, but, eventually, Lance Lynn will be doing something else.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Great post, thanks.

I do think that the contract is potentially a little more interesting than you suggest. Why is it obvious that it’s good for the team?

After all, they would have been better off if they would have managed to get Lynn to give them an option for a fourth year. I was a little surprised that they didn’t manage to get something along those lines (they did with Garcia, Carpenter, etc.) and it seems likely that they could have if they would have approached him a year earlier.

7 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

They get cost certainty and avoid the possibility of Lynn’s arbitration figures going through the roof for his final arbitration years.

7 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

People always say “cost certainty”, but how much can this really be worth to the team? His pay was already tied to performance anyway and no arbitration jump was going to kill the Cardinals. This isn’t Tampa.

On the other point, sure, they save some money. That’s good. But, in the past they have also typically gotten a extra year or two of control and sometimes the ability to opt in or out of those extra years. So, as far as these extensions go, this one seems ex ante much less favorable to the team than others. Given that they got less than they have gotten with other players, it’s not obvious that this is such a great deal for the team.

[Sometimes people look at these deals as good for the team in the simple sense that the team is getting a good player at a price way below the free market value, but — unfortunately for Lynn — that was something that they were already guaranteed, not something that they got from the deal.]

7 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

It’s better than having Lynn go year to year. Just because it’s less favorable than a long term lock-up doesn’t mean it’s not good for the team.

Jeffrey Lage
7 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

A lot of the value can be had in simply not having to meet with the player in a stressful environment every year.

And I would think, when planning out your future budget and plans, it would be ideal to know exactly what you will be paying as many players as possible, rather than budgeting based on a range.

But overall, I think the main value to the Cardinals is that they possibly save a few bucks, and they don’t have to go through this process with the player again for awhile.

Though, I like other Cards fans, hoped this deal would have included a free agent year or two, good for Lynn on getting the extension and not having to sacrifice anything.

7 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

Lynn has been worth 3 WAR x 3 seasons. ZiPS has him for 2 WAR next year. So I think reasonable to say 6WAR is his floor, 9 WAR his ceiling, over the next 3 seasons.

9 WAR * $7m = $63 million w/o inflation or player decline.

DC uses arb estimates at 40%/60%/80% market for the 3 arb years. That’s an average across all 3 years of 60%.

.60 * $63 million = 37.8 million

Pessimistic outlook is 6 WAR * $7 million = $42 million * 0.60 = 25.2 million.

Very back-of-the-envelope, but it’s tough not to like this deal. Even if Lynn has bad years, it’s unlikely he’d be that far off in arbitration. Plus, inflation — if baseball’s salaries continue to rise, we could be looking at $8-9 million (with minimum number of years to be in consideration).

Tough not to like this deal for StL.

7 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

They also get the advantage of goodwill on Lynn’s part during their 3 year window to discuss an extension.

Limning Roccoco Nut
7 years ago
Reply to  olethros

I must respectfully disagree, re any possible extension. I can’t imagine the Cardinals even attempting to ink Lynn to a deal beyond 2017. Just like when Kyle Lohse left, St. Louis in 2018 is going to have at least one or two pitchers ready to replace 2/3 of Lynn’s production at 3% of the cost. (The slew of talented 22 & 23-year-olds in 2018 would potentially include Alex Reyes, Rob Kaminsky, Jack Flaherty, Ian McKinney, Bryan Dobzanski, Julio Mateo, Ronnie Williams, Juan Perez, Frederis Parra, *plus* anyone they draft from the collegiate ranks between now and then.)

This is a good deal for all concerned. If Lynn would’ve been a $6-10-14M pitcher through his arby years (or in his case, Arby’s years), then ownership just got a 25% discount. Lance on the other hand is now secure for life, barring some oddball catastrophe or other.