I love Lance Lynn. Please, remember that as we move through this article, because it’s going to get negative. Why wouldn’t I like him, though? He’s been a huge part of some very successful Cardinals teams. He competes his hind end off and when it’s all over he hams it up with reporters. He’s what some folks would call a “winner”, in that even when the numbers don’t back him up, he finds a way to come out ahead. (Early in his career that could also be called, “league-best run support” but I digress). The man has done a lot for this organization, he is well liked by fans and he is, simply, a good pitcher. However, as he is set to enter the free agent market for the first time in his career, keeping him in St. Louis is something that the Cardinals don’t appear (and rightfully so) interested in doing.
In the wake of the late-August Mike Leake trade, comments were made by both Lynn and John Mozeliak that indicated the team’s direction. Lynn expressed that the Cardinals had not communicated with him whatsoever about even the possibility of a contract extension. Mozeliak — when asked if the trade of Leake meant that the team could turn and invest the money saved in Lynn — said that he wouldn’t be so fast to draw that conclusion. You can see where this is heading, right? At this point it appears that the Cardinals have made up their minds. It also appears that Lynn has accepted that his future is not in St. Louis. But why is the team going a different direction?
Lynn, aside from missing a year recovering from Tommy John surgery, has been a durable workhorse. You can count on him to take the ball every 5th day and give you in the area of 180-200 innings. Sometimes he is dominant, typically he is solid. He is a given. So why move on? Lynn believes the team wants to go younger. Likewise, the front office has expressed a desire to clear a path for some of the talented young arms in the system. I believe it goes a little deeper than that. First of all, Lynn isn’t getting any younger. But age isn’t everything. Rather, it’s a downward trending fastball may be the even greater concern. Tie in both of those with his pitching approach, and Lynn could be a bad investment for any team that hands him a big contract, not just the Cardinals.
Before I dig in, thanks to Brooks Baseball, Baseball-Reference, and Fangraphs for the plethora of stats coming up. Also, to avoid confusion, when I talk velocity, it’s in terms of 4-seam fastballs. When I talk pitch usage, it’s in terms of the “hard” (4-seam, sinker, cutter) category. I tried not to jump back-and-forth, but just for clarity’s sake, now you know.
They say age is just a number, but baseball is a numbers game. Lance Lynn has had a few too many birthdays (30 of them) prior to hitting free agency. More importantly, he will be celebrating the wrong birthdays during his next contract. A 5-year contract would include his age 31-35 seasons. This means that any team signing him is getting a pitcher that is either already passed his prime, or has just 1 or 2 prime years remaining. That part depends on your definition, but either way, the majority of a presumed 5-year contract would be post-prime seasons. We’ve seen how fast pitchers can decline. Adam Wainwright went from dominant at 32 & 33, to one of the worst (statistically) starting pitchers in baseball at ages 34 & 35. To be fair, an achilles injury surely shoulder’s some of the blame, but the drop off was still sharp. Matt Garza signed with Milwaukee for his age 30-34 seasons. He had a solid first year (3.64 ERA) but has been BAD ever since (ERA’s of 5.61, 4.51, 4.94). You simply can’t beat Father Time.
So with that in mind, you have to consider how wise it is to hand a pitcher of that age a 5-year contract. And let me just say, he will get a 5-year contract, that’s the going length for a pitcher of his caliber. In this market, two years removed from a lesser (though younger) Mike Leake recieving a 5-year $80 Million deal, Lynn can surely command 5 years and $100 Million with his body of work. Most contracts are backloaded, or at least see the highest amounts about 3/4 of the way through (say years 3 & 4) with a slight salary drop in the final year or two. That’s how Leake’s contract was structured. So Lynn would probably make about $18M for 2 years (likely his most productive years) before making $23M for 2 years, and then back to $18M for the final year. Or in that general area. That means paying a pitcher $64M for his age 33-35 seasons, when he is likely in some sort of decline. That’s a risk with any pitcher, not just Lynn. But as I dig into the numbers, I’m led to believe that Lynn’s decline will come soon and it will be a product of both his stuff and his style.
It is typical for pitchers to lose a mile or two off of their fastball as they get into their mid-thirties. Unfortunately, Lynn has been losing speed on his fastball as he moves through his late-twenties. Here is a graph of Lynn’s average fastball velocities, by year, since he entered the league. As you can see, except for a slight jump from ’13 to ’14, his average velocity has decreased every year. Even with that small spike, the trend is clearly going down.
Average velocity doesn’t paint a complete picture. So I decided to add another layer and look at where his fastball was topping out (max velocity). I remember days when Lynn would occasionally crank a fastball up to 97 MPH. Just in passing (and honestly, it led me to do the research and this article) I noticed the numbers 91 and 93 showing up on my television far more than they had in the past. I wasn’t seeing the 95 MPH pitch from Lynn anymore. Where was the top-end speed? It’s not that he flat out CAN’T throw it anymore. The highest tracked velocity in his career was 97.82 in 2012 and this season he reached 96.87 at least once. But he can’t throw it with the same frequency. The following chart shows the number of games in which he reached a speed of AT LEAST 95, 96, & 97 MPH.
You can see pretty clearly that the 97+ top-end speed is gone. He hasn’t touched that since 2014. The 96+ top end speed has moved from a fairly regular occurrence to an outlier, with just two such instance this entire year. What really caught my eye is that the frequency of the 95+ max velocity has taken a hard downward turn as well. Looking at these two charts, you can imagine that soon, his ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED will be 95. The pitch is losing steam. That’s a problem in more ways than one. Stay with me.
I know what you’re thinking. “Well of course his velocity dropped this year, he’s just coming back from Tommy John.” Okay, except, that’s not really a thing. Velocity typically bounces right back, whereas command sometimes doesn’t. It used to be believed that guys come back throwing harder than ever. That too is a misconception. They may be physically stronger from the rehab, but Tommy John is certainly not a magical, velocity increasing surgery. It also is not a velocity zapping procedure.
Below I have listed notable pitchers to have Tommy John in the recent past. I have listed their average fastball velocity for the 2 years prior to surgery, and then took and average of those two years to represent a “recent career norm”, if you will. Then I show the average fastball velocity for the first year back. Finally, I show the difference (+ for increase, – for decrease) between the “recent career norm” and the first year back.
The results are conclusively inconclusive. Some guys lost velocity, while others gained. Cobb and Darvish were the most extreme going each way, but none were too far off from their career levels. This means that any changes in velocity were just normal year-to-year variations, and therefore not attributable to the surgery itself.
Long story short, being fresh off the surgery is not the reason Lynn’s velocity fell this year.
Lots and Lots of Fastballs
Lance Lynn relies heavily on his fastball. It’s no secret. Over his past 3 season (’14, ’15, ’17) he has thrown fastballs (4-seam or 2-seam) 88.85%, 91.18%, and 92.22% of the time. This approach will not age well. Not in combination with a fastball that is already slowing down. To continue having success he would have to radically adjust his approach and throw significantly more breaking and off-speed pitches. Could he do it? Sure. But you have to wonder how good those secondary pitches are if he is electing to throw them less than 10% of the time.
A blueprint for Lynn could be CC Sabathia. Sabathia’s fastball sat right around 94 MPH through the age of 30. Then at 31 it dropped to 93, then at 32 it was at 92, then at 33 he was sitting at 90 MPH on the gun. He was still effective at 93, posting a 3.38 ERA, but the following three years (age 32-34) he would post a combine 4.81 ERA. He made a radical adjustment and ditched his 4-seamer, electing to throw his sinker as his primary pitch and has found success the past two seasons. To be fair, Lynn’s used his sinker 41% of the time this year, compared to 40% for his 4-seam. That sinker usage is double what he has done in his career, so he is transitioning. But there is a key difference between the two pitchers. Throughout his career, before and after the loss of velocity, CC threw “hard” pitches (fastballs/sinkers/cutters) 65% of the time. He was already making good use of his secondary pitches. Lynn doesn’t. As I said, he throws about 90% “hard” pitches. If the fastball goes, that may be it for him.
For another example of a pitcher that has aged well, here’s a glance at John Lackey. In his career, he has thrown “hard” pitches anywhere from 50-65% of the time. For moments in 2015 this climbed above 70%, but were the only such instances in a very long career. He has used a wider pitch arsenal to maintain success. This, too, is a stark contrast from Lynn.
My point is, pitchers that sustain success into their mid- to late-thirties are doing it with far more than fastballs. I just don’t think Lynn’s pitching approach will work as he gets older. Especially since his fastball is already running out of gas.
Peripherals Have Not Been Kind
Lance Lynn’s “baseball card” stats seem okay this season. An 11-8 record with a 3.43 ERA and 153 K’s across 186.1 IP is passable. But the peripheral numbers are not good. Coming into the year, his career high in homeruns allowed was 16 in 2012, his first year as a starter. He allowed 27 this year. His career K/9 was 8.7, this year it was 7.4. His walk rate didn’t soar, but it continued a slow, climbing trend. Meanwhile, his K/BB ratio decreased for the 6th consecutive year. His career FIP (fielding independent ERA (BR)) was a solid 3.36 from 2011-15. This year it jumped to 4.81. His BABIP as a starter has ranged from .290 to .321 from 2012-15. League average is right around .300, so he was right in line. In 2017 it was an astoundingly low .244, which was actually inflated by some bad starts late in the year. For most of the year he carried a BABIP in the area of .230. Combined with a decreased K/9 (i.e. more balls in play), this means he has been very lucky.
Can some of this be attributed to this being his first year back from Tommy John? Absolutely, yes. Command is typically what pitchers struggle to get back in year #1. Command doesn’t always show in walk rate, but poor command can lead to missed locations and more hittable pitches. That can explain some of the poor peripherals. But, isn’t it more difficult to get away with mistakes when you don’t have as much gusto on the pitch? (See: Career high HR allowed). Yes. So couldn’t a fastball that he is throwing slower than ever before be to blame for some of the underlying issues as well? Again, yes. And as I showed, you can’t blame the decrease in velocity on Tommy John.
Time to Move On
Allow me to summarize. I’m trying to say that Lynn’s fastball has been regressing every year, and it’s not a by-product of Tommy John. You’re saying that his performance doesn’t back that up. You’re right. Up to this point, even with decreasing velocity, his fastball has stayed at a level that is effective. (See: Sabathia, age 31, above). However, as the regression continued this year, we saw his velocity started to walk the line between effective and hittable. There were more than a few ugly games. A continuation of the current trend has his fastball sitting in the 90-92 range within a couple years. Throwing 90% fastballs, in that range, in major league games, is akin to batting practice for big league hitters. On a recent broadcast Jim Edmonds spoke of the exact thing. He stated that 92-94 MPH is a good, effective fastball, and anything slower your eyes start to light up.
Now look, I’m not saying Lynn is a bad dude or a bad pitcher. Whether the Cardinals can truly replace him in next year’s rotation and clubhouse, or whether his replacement will match what Lynn does elsewhere, is a completely different topic. I’m not even saying he will be bad in 2018, or 2019. I expect him to be solid for a couple more years, before he declines. Heck, he may not decline. Like I said, he did throw more sinkers this year. He might read this post and go curveball/slider heavy next season. Hard to say. I can’t speak with absolute certainty. But the velocity trend is real and it isn’t promising. And if it continues, along with his age, the final 2-3 years of a high dollar contract could be ugly. $20M-a-year-for-a-guy-that-can’t-hold-a-rotation-spot kind of ugly.
That’s a huge risk. And that’s why the Cardinals aren’t bringing him back.
I love Lance Lynn, and I wish him well, but it’s time to say goodbye.
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