The Numbers Game: What if Lance Lynn starts more than he relieves?

christophercarelli
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The St. Louis Cardinals are beginning their plan B scenario today with Lance Lynn taking the mound in a Spring Training game against the Houston Astros. Two weeks ago manager Mike Matheny vowed Lynn was going to be a reliever this season and he would be left in the role throughout the spring. Well, Chris Carpenter has yet to make a start due to a bulging disk in his neck and the options at AAA are not ready. So, insert Lynn.

Lynn has started 72 games in the minor leagues out of 77 total appearances; so he’s really a starter who has been used by the Cardinals as a reliever because he has a quality arm. He was fairly successful in over 200 innings at Triple-A Memphis over the course of the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Here are his stats from that period:

This is pretty good stuff with more than enough innings to make a good judgement. While with the Cardinals in 2011, he threw 34.2 innings mostly in relief. He made two starts with mixed results in June. He ended the season with a 3.12 ERA (2.88 FIP) and a whopping 10.38 K/9 for the big club.

While reviewing his projections on FanGraphs, I noticed that Bill James projected him as a starter well before it was announced that he was switching over. ZiPS shows Lynn making a multitude of starts with some relief appearances mixed in. They seem to think, and I agree, that the Cardinals pitching staff is going to need him more as a spot starter than a reliever this season. Between Carpenter’s neck issues and the abundance of innings he threw in 2011 added to Adam Wainwright‘s first season back from Tommy John surgery I feel there will be plenty of starts available for Lynn.

Here are the projections from Bill James and ZiPS courtesy of FanGraphs.

My question to begin the column was what if he pitches more as a starter than a reliever for the Cardinals this season? Some of ZiPS numbers are from nine appearances out of the pen, where James’ stats are based off all starts. I think he will be used more like ZiPS is suggesting and only because I have a feeling the Cardinals will not have much of a choice. However, I believe James’ ratios make more sense based on Lynn’s work in AAA.

I think that the Cardinals loved the power arm out of the pen that they saw from the middle part to the end of last season from Lynn, thus the insistence early on he would work in relief. But, I also feel that they know they have a good starter on their hands. Lynn, who turns 25 in May, is still learning and proved he can handle major league batters. What we will look at during the starts he makes in Spring Training is how he handles batters the second and third time he sees them in the lineup. This is the distinct advantage a reliever has and probably the reason for the large uptick in K/9 he saw as a reliever last season.

If Lynn makes twenty starts there are obvious problems elsewhere in the rotation. When comparing what Lynn brings to the table versus Carpenter or Wainwright there is certainly a downgrade, but he should not be a detriment. In fact, he is capable of compiling comparable or better numbers than Kyle Lohse or Jake Westbrook if he translates his success at AAA as a starter to the same role in St. Louis.

The Cardinals do not want the scenario of Lynn making more starts than relief appearances, but if he does they are not going to suffer from it. He has proved his ability in the minors and has had early success in the majors. He is young and possesses plenty of potential. If he does in fact log more innings as starter than a reliever and he produces good results, it could translate into a permanent role or at least a chance at one in the rotation next season.

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