Quietly great: Rangers' Lance Lynn deserved more love in 2019

Sporting News

This offseason, we’ll look at players around the majors whose 2019 seasons were overlooked for various reasons. This week’s edition focuses on Rangers pitcher Lance Lynn.

Without looking, name the top three pitchers with the highest fWAR in 2019. Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom are the easy ones, but the third one is tricky. It’s not Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer — it’s Lance Lynn (6.8). While WAR might not be the best metric for gauging a pitcher’s success, Lynn had an undeniably great season this year.

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Along with the high WAR, Lynn threw 208.1 innings in 2019, one of only 15 pitchers to cross the 200-inning threshold. In 2011, when Lynn was a rookie, there were 39 pitchers (and a 40th who missed by one out) who tossed at least 200 innings, so he’s part of a dying breed.

And in a time when baseball increasingly shifts toward the three true outcomes, Lynn’s 28.1 percent strikeout rate was in the top 20 in baseball and also good for the highest rate in a full season in his career. His 9.9 percent HR/FB rate was the second-best in baseball among qualified pitchers, and in total Lynn gave up 21 home runs in 2019, which was 14th-lowest in baseball. But he did it while facing 875 atters, the second-highest number last season.

All of this and Lynn didn’t get an All-Star nod (he’s only made it once, in 2012), though he did finished fifth in Cy Young voting, thanks to down-ballot votes from a handful of BBWAA members. But other than that, Lynn didn’t garner a lot of attention for the quality season he threw in Texas.

Why did we sleep on this guy?

Sometimes you think you already have a player figured out. Lynn has been around for almost a decade, and he got his start in Cardinals rotations that were headed by the likes of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, so he was perhaps easy to take for granted.

But even in those years, Lynn was quite good. He never posted an ERA at or above 4.00 during his years in St. Louis and earned at least double-digit wins every season. Despite this, the Cardinals let him walk in free agency after the 2017 season, likely because Tommy John surgery had kept him out the previous year and he had not fully returned to form.

Leaving the Cardinals set up a somewhat forgettable campaign in 2018, when Lynn signed with the Twins well into spring training and then was eventually traded to the Yankees a day before the non-waiver trade deadline. For Minnesota, Lynn had a 5.10 ERA and went 7-8. With the Yankees, things improved only slightly.

Coming off a down year and going to a team that has finished well below .500 for the past three seasons, Lynn’s strong performance in 2019 didn’t get the notice it deserved. And though Lynn is hardly long in the tooth, it is harder for pitchers a few years beyond 30 to generate a lot of buzz. Combine all that with the fact that the strength in the AL West is undeniably centered at the top with the Astros and Athletics, and the Angels are arguably the team with the brighter future, and that can help explain why Lynn’s performance was mostly missed.

What’s ahead in 2020?

During his peak years with the Cardinals, Lynn had his fastball and sinker around 94 and 92 mph on average and paired them with effective offspeed and breaking pitches. But by the time he left St. Louis, his average fastball velocity had dropped to 92 and his sinker to 91. He could still get outs with those pitches, but his once very useful changeup had become so hittable that he practically abandoned it.

With Twins and Yankees in 2018, Lynn’s velocity crept back to normal levels, but the results weren’t there yet. The good news is that Lynn’s performance last season seems to show that he has fully come back from the Tommy John surgery that shelved him for all of 2016. Those diminished velocity numbers in 2017 may have been the product of the surgery and year-long layoff, and only now is he fully back to form.

Along the way, Lynn has made adjustments to his arm slot — his release point is farther to his arm side than the first seven years of his career — and he uses his cutter much more often than he used to. After years of throwing mostly his four-seam fastball and his sinker, his cutter usage has increased to almost match his sinker. In 2015, Lynn threw his cutter under 8 percent of the time, and by this past season that had more than doubled. And with good reason — Lynn’s cutter was near the top 10 in baseball by opposing hitter wOBA. In 2012, when Lynn was having his best season to date, opposing hitters had a .619 slugging percentage against his cutter. In 2019, they managed only .304.

The Rangers have Lynn under contract through 2021, and there are a lot of reasons to believe he can continue his good pitching from 2019. Next year, let’s pay more attention.

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