Some Renewed Appreciation for Lance Lynn

A year ago, Lance Lynn finished fifth in the American League Cy Young race. While his 6.8 WAR was third in the AL (second at Baseball-Reference), his case didn’t seem to resonate with voters. His strikeout totals weren’t as gaudy as other contenders’ and while his 3.13 FIP pitching in a hitter’s park was very good, his 3.67 ERA looked more good than great. The difference between his FIP and ERA can mostly be attributed to bad luck or poor defense on batted balls, and once his home park is adjusted for, Lynn put up one of the best seasons in the AL. So far this season, Lynn has picked up right where he left off, with a 38% strikeout rate in two scoreless starts.

For some context, here are the top 10 pitchers in baseball by WAR since the start of the 2019 season:

Pitching WAR Leaders Since the Start of 2019
Name IP K% BB% ERA FIP FIP- WAR
Jacob deGrom 221 32% 5% 2.40 2.60 60 7.7
Gerrit Cole 230 39% 6% 2.50 2.77 62 7.6
Lance Lynn 220.1 29% 7% 3.47 3.05 65 7.4
Max Scherzer 185 35% 5% 2.92 2.45 54 6.9
Shane Bieber 228.1 32% 5% 3.07 3.09 68 6.7
Justin Verlander 229 35% 5% 2.59 3.33 74 6.3
Charlie Morton 203.2 30% 7% 3.27 2.89 66 6.1
Zack Greinke 217.2 23% 4% 3.02 3.18 72 5.7
Stephen Strasburg 209 30% 7% 3.32 3.25 72 5.7
Jack Flaherty 203.1 30% 7% 2.74 3.39 78 5.1

Jacob deGrom is great and Gerrit Cole probably deserved the Cy Young award last year, but just behind those two is Lynn with a healthy lead over Max Scherzer and Shane Bieber, who Ben Clemens profiled yesterday. Lynn’s 2019 season was marked by a change in pitch usage; he reduced the use of his sinker unless there were runners on base. It’s only two starts, but his sinker usage has dropped even further in 2020, much like it did last September:

Lance Lynn Pitch Mix
Month Sinker Cutter Four-seamer Total FF/FC/SI K%
April 2019 21% 16% 50% 87% 21%
May 2019 22% 22% 41% 85% 27%
June 2019 16% 16% 53% 85% 31%
July 2019 16% 16% 61% 92% 30%
August 2019 18% 11% 56% 85% 27%
September 2019 12% 19% 61% 92% 34%
July 2020 7% 22% 65% 93% 38%

The less Lynn uses his sinker, the more strikeouts he generates, and he seemed to strike the best balance last June and July, when he minimized his walk rate and put up sub-three FIPs in both months. In Lynn’s first start this season, he allowed four walks to go with his nine strikeouts, but against Arizona last week, he struck out eight and walked just two. In terms of weak contact, only Trevor Bauer has a lower xwOBA on contact than Lynn’s .242 (at least 150 pitches), and Bauer faced the Tigers in both of his starts. Lynn’s starts haven’t been against powerhouses — he faced the Rockies and the Diamondbacks — but he has continued to do what has made him successful over the last year. Lynn goes after hitters with a four-seam fastball most of the time, and does a great job of mixing and disguising his pitches. Perhaps because he throws the pitch so often and nearly all of his pitches get classified as fastballs, it’s possible his four-seamer escapes notice. It’s got an extremely high spin rate and he throws it really hard. The graph below shows all the pitchers who have thrown at least 1,000 four-seamers since the beginning of last year:

Of pitchers who use their four-seamer a lot, Cole is the only pitcher in baseball who throws one harder and with more spin than Lynn does. Between pitches, the big righty might occasionally look like he’s been exuding max effort, but the delivery shows considerably less effort and it gets on hitters quickly. Here’s a fastball to Eduardo Escobar:

Last season, only Reynaldo L√≥pez threw a greater percentage of four-seam fastballs over the heart of the plate, but Lynn can get away with being so aggressive. What makes Lynn successful playing off that fastball is his ability to hide his other pitches. As Thomas Harrigan just wrote for MLB.com, Lynn’s tunneling numbers are superb. Part of what makes his tunneling so effective is where he throws his pitches, letting the movement of the pitch guide the ball to its location. The graph below shows the pitch movement on Lynn’s sinker, four-seamer, and cutter:

It’s not that complex an illustration. The fastball stays up top without much downward movement, moving slightly in toward right-handers. The sinker and cutter have more downward movement, with the sinker moving in towards right-handers and and the cutter moving away. Now, let’s look at where Lynn throws these three pitches:

Lynn’s heatmaps mirror the movement of the pitches. He changes the locations of his pitches without throwing them to a different spot. As for how that works, here’s a fastball at the top of the zone to the inside part of the plate against Daniel Murphy:

The ball wasn’t thrown particularly hard for Lynn, but it got strike one. Lynn follows up with a cutter:

The movement of the cutter causes the ball to go down and in on the hands. If he had thrown the exact same pitch except with four-seam movement, it would have ended up over the heart of the plate. The four-seam fastball sets up a swing that can only weakly pop the pitch up to shallow center field. Already this season, Lynn has four infield flies; the 181 footaverage distance of his fly balls is the lowest of the 73 pitchers who have made at least 150 pitches this season. Preventing distance on fly balls is not new for Lynn. A year ago, his 291-foot average was 17th among the 76 pitchers with at least 2,500 pitches. While home run rate is subject to some fluctuation year to year, Lynn can be a fly ball pitcher and keep balls in the park by preventing hitters from squaring the ball up when he pitches.

It’s still early, but Lance Lynn’s start seems to be a continuation of the very good 2019 campaign that made him one of the best pitchers in baseball. Pitching for the Rangers and having a bit of bad luck might have obscured Lynn’s season a year ago, but a repeat of last year’s performance with a little bit better luck could net Lynn more recognition and an even better finish in this season’s Cy Young race.

We hoped you liked reading Some Renewed Appreciation for Lance Lynn by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Lance Lynn is an ace. Insert Rodney Dangerfield respect quote here. I’d say he is a borderline top 10 pitcher, and with what we have seen from his new ballpark some of the traditional indicators such as ERA might lower a bit too. The other thing about him, is he a horse. If I had to bet on a guy being reliable season in and season out with no real innings cap, it is him. Also one of my favorite things about no fans this season is him yelling “f*$#” after every single ball, or even when someone hits a pop fly and he thinks he made a bad pitch. It is truly great.