St. Louis Cardinals: How long will the Lynnsanity last?

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May 28, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn (31) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
May 28, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn (31) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /
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Lance Lynn has been one of the more consistent, yet unremarkable faces in the rotation for the St. Louis Cardinals over the past few years, but has returned sharper than ever over the first two months of the 2017 season. Will Lynn continue to exceed expectations or revert to his more modest numbers?

Behind Lance Lynn‘s appealing 2.93 ERA and even more attractive .192 batting average against, there are other more concerning statistical outliers that either do not coincide with the rest of his St. Louis Cardinals career or are signs of luck contributing towards his success.

Only time will tell how well Lynn will perform over the remainder of the season, but here are some interesting differences in Lynn’s performance this year compared to year’s past that he will need to sustain and mistakes that have yet to be capitalized on that he will need to cut down on to maintain his current success.

One of the more concerning, yet surprising aspects of Lynn’s season is his improved ERA despite giving up an increased volume of home runs.

Lynn’s 1.55 HR/9 this season is much higher than his previous seasons — his highest mark on a full season is .82 in 2012 — and he has surrendered as many home runs hit against him as he did through September 6 in his 2015 campaign.

This increase in dingers is only an aspect of a larger problem: an increased discrepancy between his standard stats and his defense-independent stats. Here is a look at Lynn’s ERA vs his Fielding Independent Pitching stat, via Baseball Reference and Fangraphs:

YearERAFIPDiff
20113.122.880.24
20123.783.490.29
20133.973.280.69
20142.743.35-0.61
20153.033.44-0.41
20172.934.71-1.78

In the past, Lynn’s ERA and FIP have remained very close to each other, demonstrating that Lynn’s ERA was not greatly distorted by strong defense and chance. Such a huge differential between the two stats this year is telling of factors outside of Lynn’s direct control, and are telling of some luck being involved.

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Of the ten homers that Lynn has given up this year, only three of them have been with men on. While this is a testament to his ability to keep runners off of the bases this season as seen by his very solid .212 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), it is not demonstrative of significant improvement in an overall perspective when considering the volume of home runs given up in exchange.

If Lynn continues to give up long balls at this rate, his ERA will gradually begin to crawl back up closer to his career average.

Another piece of Lynn’s great start is the difference in the kind of swings and contact that his pitching is forcing. One could argue that this is due to Lynn’s improved performance itself, but I believe that part of it is a kiss from Lady Luck.

Here is a look at batter’s plate discipline statistics vs Lynn over the scope of his career, via Fangraphs:

YearO-Swing%Z-Swing%Swing%O-Contact%Z-Contact%Contact%Zone%
201126.50%60.90%44.60%62.90%84.90%78.70%52.70%
201229.40%61.20%45.00%67.70%82.50%77.60%48.90%
201327.40%65.50%46.80%62.20%86.20%79.30%50.90%
201426.50%64.60%45.40%68.60%86.40%81.10%49.60%
201526.20%69.20%46.80%69.10%85.60%80.80%47.90%
201726.40%64.70%44.30%78.00%80.00%79.40%46.90%
Total27.30%64.90%45.80%67.40%85.00%79.70%49.40%

Despite throwing about the same proportion of pitches in the strike zone as in 2015 and maintaining similar overall contact percentages, Lynn has been able to both force more contact outside the zone and decrease contact allowed inside the zone by almost 7%.

While one could attribute this to increased use of his secondary pitches, in particular bumping up his slider usage from 8% in 2015 to almost 14% this season, he hasn’t made people swing and miss outside of the zone significantly more than last season.

Instead, batters are swinging significantly fewer times at the pitches that he offers inside the zone. More importantly, batters aren’t hitting the ball when he’s throwing it right down the middle. Here is a chart of Lance Lynn’s strikeout pitches this season, courtesy of mlb.com:

One of Lynn’s two hot locations for strikeouts this year is right down the middle of the plate, which makes sense when taking the low zone swing percentage into account. All put together, it seems like players have been getting good pitches to hit from Lynn, they just haven’t been swinging at them nearly as often as in previous years.

In order to continue this kind of success, Lynn will have to continue to integrate his renewed slider over the corners of the plate. While Lynn has been able to expand his zone this season, there are still many parts of the plate that he neglects. Here is a side by side comparison of Lynn’s pitch location in 2015 versus 2017, courtesy of Fangraphs:

Lynn was extremely concentrated in the middle third of the plate in 2015, and while he has expanded his locations somewhat this season, there are still several key spots on the zone that he doesn’t seem to hit.

It’s just too hard to sustain this kind of success banking on players not swinging at a little more than the middle third of the plate, so diversifying his pitch location will be important for Lynn if he wants to continue at this pace.

Next: Five big Cardinals stories approaching

For a pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery and a lost season, it’s hard to expect much more from Lance Lynn than what we have gotten from him. While there are ways for Lynn to continue his run this season, don’t be too surprised if he starts falling back to Earth.

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