What In The World Is Wrong With Lance Lynn?
The easy and thoughtless answer to the question posed in that title is “Lance Lynn sucks.” That was largely the response Lynn received across Twitter and Facebook after a frustrating 6-4 loss to the bad-but-improving Chicago Cubs.
However, if we’re honest, last night’s loss had more to do with poor defense (particularly in a hapless second inning defensive meltdown) and a lack of situational hitting. You could also make the argument that leaving Lynn in to bat for himself in the fourth inning with the bases loaded in a 4-1 game was a mistake, although most managers probably wouldn’t make that move. And we can also thank blind, unforgiving luck for Lynn’s loss, too: the Cubs had a BABIP of .400 last night, an insurmountable amount of lucky, seeing-eye hits for any pitcher. Last night Lynn had the best ground-ball rate (73.7%) since he shut out the Pirates on April 15th. Most of the time, a ground-ball percentage that high will win a game. Not last night for Lynn with that kind of bad luck.
Still, there seems to be some uncomfortable truth in fan perceptions that Lynn cannot shut down the opposition in many of his starts. The crooked innings exist, the bad body language is obvious. How can a pitcher with the most wins over the last two seasons face this much ongoing criticism?
By most statistics, Lynn has been a success. He has a record of 11-4 with a decent (not great) ERA of 4.00. His fielding-independent ERA is better at 3.13. He’s not experiencing good or bad luck, either; his BABIP is at a neutral .301 so far (that will change, of course). Lynn’s SIERA (which is an ERA that measures a pitcher’s handling of situational hitting) is a solid 3.68 this season. These statistics have caused some ill-informed bloggers to defend Lynn’s overall performance in the rotation, mislabeling him as “great” or “excellent.”
Whoa, nelly. Let’s pull back the reins of enthusiasm and look at the larger picture.
First of all, Lynn’s record is tainted by run support. For the second straight year, Lynn has received the most run support (5.95 runs per game) of any starting pitcher in the major leagues. The infamous Kip Wells could win the Cy Young Award with that kind of incomprehensible run support. For Lynn, it must be like winning the lottery two years in a row, and it’s largely responsible for Lynn’s heightened reputation and expectation levels.
I also find Lynn’s ERA+ to be somewhat disturbing. The statistic attempts to measure a pitcher’s ERA based on the ballpark in which they’re pitching; for instance, a pitcher’s performance in spacious PETCO looks much different than it does in Wrigley Field. The statistic uses “100″ as the league average; numbers higher than “100″ indicate a better performance, and numbers lower than “100″ indicate a lesser performance.
For instance, Adam Wainwright understandably leads the rotation with an ERA+ of 161. Shelby Miller (127) and Jake Westbrook (104) are also above 100. Lynn has the lowest ERA+ in the rotation with 93, three points lower than Joe Kelly. Clearly Lynn has been below-average despite some solid overall numbers.
Here is a chart of Lynn’s major league career thus far:
As we can readily see, Lynn’s strikeout rate has dropped significantly, and his WHIP over the last two seasons is sharply higher than in 2011. What might be the difference?
Here is the chart showing the amount of times Lynn is throwing each of his pitches. Can you spot the glaring difference from 2011?
For whatever reason, Lynn has been leaning on his slider (SL%) and two-seam fastball (FT%) over the last two years while reducing his use of the curve (CU%). Unfortunately, Lynn’s slider was his worst pitch in 2012 (26.9% line drive rate, 20% HR rate) and it’s arguably his second-worst pitch so far in 2013. Yet, for some reason, Lynn has been trying to incorporate more of them into his repertoire.
Lynn’s bread-and-butter is his solid fastball, but his two-seam fastball has developed into a very strong offering. Just 13.9% of Lynn’s two-seamers in 2012 resulted in a line drive while inducing nearly 60% ground balls. He’s had similar success with the pitch in 2013. Despite Lynn’s improvement with the pitch, he still seems hesitant to throw it, relying instead on an ineffective slider and a fastball that has been hammered for a 25% line drive rate and a fly ball rate of nearly 50%.
The end result of this pitch confusion could be seen last night against the Cubs. Both home runs came on fastballs Lynn threw early in the count to try and get ahead of Alfonso Soriano and Luis Valbuena; fastballs at Wrigley (particularly to a hot bat like Soriano’s) can be deadly with Lynn’s fly ball rate on that pitch. Given how little Lynn mixes his pitches (everyone in baseball is looking fastball), Soriano and Valbuena were waiting for the pitch. They didn’t miss it.
So what is wrong with Lynn? Here are some ideas:
1. Unrealistic expectations – Lynn’s record has been inflated by ridiculous run support. Coupled with a solid ERA, Lynn looks like a better pitcher than he is on the field.
2. Poor mound presence – We all see the infantile temper tantrums and slumping shoulders of someone who is unable to completely control a game.
3. Unwise pitch selection – As statistics show, Lynn leaning on certain pitches in particular situations/ballparks could lead to disaster.
4. Failure to master the art of pitching – Lynn doesn’t seem willing/able to learn how to mix his pitches to control counts. Pitching is more than throwing a baseball really hard.
The simple truth is this: most pitchers will never be an “ace.” Most scouts believe that Lynn has the raw stuff to dominate games, but, for whatever reason (mental? emotional? bad luck?), he just can’t seem to produce consistent results. Personally, I think Lynn could be a solid 3-4 starter for any team in baseball with some corrections. Until those adjustments are made, I’m afraid the inconsistencies and the perceived attitude problems will keep him in the doghouse of the Best Fans In Baseball™.