What To Do About Lance Lynn
It’s a story as old as time. A young pitcher, for whom expectations are relatively low, is given a rotation spot to start the season and he runs with it. He pitches well through the first month or two of the season, but you hold him because no one is offering you close to the value you think he’ll return over the rest of the season. He starts to struggle a bit and you worry the league is catching up to him. You think about dealing him for less than you still think he’s worth because he’s “your guy”. You hang on to him and he gets a second wind. The trade offers get a little better, but still not enough. Then he hits a wall and you’re left wondering how to value him going forward.
We could be talking about Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija or a handful of others here — but for today, it’s Lance Lynn of the St Louis Cardinals. The main problem about establishing the proper value for any of these types of players is that on some level, we already thought we knew who they were. Lance Lynn was a very helpful bullpen piece for the 2011 Cardinals in his 34 2/3 IP — so much so that they brought him back after he was recovered from his oblique strain to pitch meaningful innings in the NLCS and the World Series. We knew he was going to get a chance to start while Chris Carpenter was on the shelf (at the time that was only supposed to be a month or two) and then he would shift back to the bullpen and be a set-up guy. We also now know that it didn’t play out like that.
It turns out Lynn is a much better starting pitcher than he was given credit for. Rarely do you see a pitcher up his K/9 by more than a strikeout an inning from the minors to the majors in his first full season, but Lynn did just that. There was nothing wrong with his career 7.8 K/9 in the minors, but an 8.9 K/9 in the majors as a starter is something to get much more excited about. I’ve heard two main theories about why his strikeout rate is better now than it was in the minors. The first is that he used to rely much more heavily on a two-seam fastball early in his career, but has since scrapped that plan to dial up his four-seamer into the mid-90’s more often. More velocity doesn’t always equal more strikeouts, but it usually helps. Secondly, scouts have noticed that Lynn has become more aggressive on the mound. That’s not to say that Lynn was a nibbler before, but when you have above-average stuff like he does, challenging hitters will often lead to slightly better overall results.
There is always a fine line of demarcation between whether a pitcher’s performance starts to go south over the course of their first full season in the majors because the league is catching up to him or because he’s tiring. In Lynn’s case, it seems to slightly skewed toward the latter. So while his fastball averaged below 92.5 MPH in his last two starts (compared to 93.8 MPH for the season), it’s not a startling drop and it’s not the sole reason for his struggles in August. It’s also due to his control abandoning him — he had a 12.2% BB rate in August, the only month of the year it was even in double digits. As far as the first point goes, I broke out Lynn’s starts between when he faced a team for the first time in 2012 and the times he faced repeat opponents. The results, while having the standard small sample size caveats, would not support an argument that teams just needed to get more looks at him.
Lance Lynn vs Opponent, First Round: 8-4 with a 4.10 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 8.9 K/9 and 2.5 K/BB in 87 2/3 IP
Lance Lynn vs Opponent, Later Rounds: 5-1 with a 3.81 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 9.5 K/9 and 2.9 K/BB in 54 1/3 IP
So what does Lance Lynn need to do to at least keep up this level of performance (if not improve it)? He needs a better plan against lefties. This season, LHB had an 828 OPS against Lynn, versus a 649 OPS for RHB. On top of that, he had a 1.4 K/BB and 4.96 xFIP against lefties, while he had a 7.6 K/BB and 2.66 xFIP against righties. Quite simply, he needs a better weapon or a better plan against left-handed hitters or else this could become a Justin Masterson-type situation. Lynn has a change-up, which he uses exclusively against lefties (125 of 126 change-ups in 2012 were v LHB), but the pitch grades out very slightly positive as it’s worth 0.2 runs saved. Maybe the answer is fewer two-seamers, maybe it’s developing a cutter, but either way it’s something to watch.
As of today, Lynn is the #46 ranked SP on the ESPN Player Rater, and that number is only going to go down from here with him being removed from the rotation. This means his season ending numbers may make him either an undervalued asset coming into 2013 or a buy-low in dynasty leagues. But this is all assuming he’s in the Cardinals rotation in 2013. Right now, they have Wainwright, Garcia, Lohse, Westbrook and Carpenter all under contract for next season — which (if all healthy) may not leave room for Lynn and uber-stud Shelby Miller. If I knew the Cardinals would put him in the rotation on Opening Day and leave him there, I’d absolutely consider him a top-40 starter (with top-25 upside) for next season and beyond. Unfortunately, we just don’t know, so I can’t do that.
If you have Lynn in a redraft, I’m sure you’ve dropped him already (if not, do that now). But in a keeper where less than 100 total players are kept, he should be dropped as well (of course, if you’re out of contention, I might hold onto him just because). In a deep keeper league, 100-200 players kept, I think you hold onto him if you can – but if you need the roster spot, you can begrudgingly let him go. In a dynasty format, you’re not dropping him, but keep a close eye on news out of St Louis and his trade value during the off-season. But in the end, if he goes back to just being a good reliever (which seems like the worst-case scenario at this point), at least you got a really good four-month stretch out of him. And considering he was probably a late draft pick or a waiver wire add, that’s still a net gain for your team.