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Lance Lynn Is Not Who You Think He Is

March 29, 2012; Jupiter, FL, USA;   St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Lance Lynn (31) throws a pitch during a spring training game against the Miami Marlinsat Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE
March 29, 2012; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Lance Lynn (31) throws a pitch during a spring training game against the Miami Marlinsat Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE

Lance Lynn was drafted in 2008 in the 1st supplemental round. At the time of the draft, you would hear comments about how "polished" Lynn was or how he would be able to "move quickly" through the system. Often, and this was the case with Lynn, lines like that are code for a lack of pure stuff. When Lynn was drafted, his average fastball was closer to 90mph than it was to 95mph. He lacked the definitive secondary pitch that could put away batters and instead focused on a variety of pitches and mixing a curveball, slider and changeup to keep batters off balance.

This narrative followed him throughout his minor league career and it was not an incorrect narrative. In 2009, I watched Lynn's start in Memphis. At that time I noted:

After watching the video, I came away a little disappointed. There’s nothing in his repertoire that stands out as a swing and miss offering. The fastballs are a tick above average. The breaking ball is an above average pitch and the changeup is a functional average third pitch. He’s got different looks to him and what he throws and he’ll need that to survive because the raw stuff was very underwhelming.

Throughout 2009, there wasn't a lot of evidence that Lynn was pitching in any exceptional fashion. He had a good year at Springfield, where he pitched the vast majority of his innings, with a 3.47 FIP but it was largely due to an aberrant low home run rate. His strikeout rate was thoroughly underwhelming (< 7K/9IP) and his command was unexceptional (3.63BB/9IP). 2010 featured a similar start but something changed.

In the first half of 2010, Lynn's K:BB ratio was under 2. Through July, August and one September start, it rocketed to over 3. Lynn capped off that season with the impressive 16 strikeout game for the Redbirds in playoff baseball. When you aren't watching a player on a day in day out basis and when you aren't privy to what the coaches are working on them with, statistics are difficult to parse between variance and a real change in skill. Rumors and reports of an increase in velocity started showing up on the internet and I asked Farm Director John Vuch about it.

He did touch 96 on several fastballs late in the year, but really worked more consistently in the 92 MPH range (with quite a few 94’s). Since earlier in the year he would sit at 90 MPH with the occasional 92-93, the gain in velocity is significant, at least in terms of where he finished the season. Much of Lynn’s success stems from the deception in his delivery, which allows his fastball to "jump" out of his hand, making his fastball a swing and miss pitch.

I was, reflexively, skeptical of that response. Not that Mr. Vuch was being false in his response but part of his job is to offer a positive outlook on the prospects. It would be extremely unexpected to get a critical response. (For those of you who were listening to KMOX's rain delay coverage yesterday, you got a dose of this via Double AA Springfield GM Matt Gifford. While praising Matt Adams defense at first, Gifford began the Kolten Wong-Roberto Alomar comparisons.) I wrote of my skepticism at the time.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Lynn did have a mixed 2010 but I hope this helps shed some light on (some) of the reasons for that. I’d feel irresponsible to tell you to totally disregard his first half performance — indeed, Lynn will probably have times when he loses his mechanics for a couple starts and has command issues — but Mr. Vuch’s words certainly lend credence to the arguments that Lynn’s second half was more characteristic of his ability than the first half of 2010.

Lance Lynn is not the same pitcher he was when he was drafted. He flashed some of that potential in 2011 in the bullpen. Lynn became a strikeout machine with better than a strikeout an inning. Much of his work in the bullpen is now part of Cardinal lore immortalized in the post season. What is easy to miss is that, prior to being called up, Lynn had shown an increased strikeout rate and a decreased walk rate in Memphis relative to his previous season.

While his work as a starter in Memphis during 2011 wasn't on par with his bullpen role throughout the end of the season, it lends to the theory that something had fundamentally changed. Lynn has continued to refine his game as well. In spring, Derrick Goold made note of Lynn's work on a cut fastball to add another dimension to his repertoire.

Lynn struck out three batters, and he regularly touched 96 mph on the stadium's radar gun. He was able to fire a fastball up in the zone past Jack Cust in the first inning. His 37th pitch of the game was a 96 mph fastball that Jed Lowrie took for a strike. Lynn mixed in his hard curve and the cut fastball that he's been working on utilizing this spring. Several times he was able to use his cutter effectively for an awkward swing — Matheny's description — or called strike.

The narrative of a fifth starter, however, has been hard to shake. For instance, in March the St. Louis Post-Dispatch queried several of their writers as well as VEB's founder Larry Borowsky with the question "If pressed into starting duty, how do you think Lance Lynn projects as a member of a big league rotation?" Uniformly, Joe Strauss, Goold, Rick Hummel, Jeff Gordon and Borowsky all answered that Lynn was a back of the rotation starter.

Danupbaby noted yesterday, a bit perplexedly, that Lance Lynn isn't acting like the Lance Lynn many thought he was.

Through two starts Lance Lynn hasn't been perfect (he did give way to five relief pitchers today) but he's been outstanding, in a very noisy, visibly impressive way—it's still strange to me that this Lance Lynn, striking out 13 batters in 12 innings, is the same one who was supposed to stand at the back of the Cardinals' rotation one day, throwing 88 mile-an-hour sinkers until he'd gone six innings and given up three earned runs.

After his first start in Milwaukee when he pitched 6.2 innings and struck out 8, there was an enjoyable anecdote in Goold's post-game writeup.

Lynn faced the minimum through four innings, and during that flawless fourth, the Cardinals’ four starters watched together from the dugout. It was then that Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook started asking Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia about Carpenter’s return in a month or more. With Lynn overwhelming the Brewers, the four starters wondered which of them would be displaced by Carpenter.

Lynn's second start, yesterday against the Cubs, was less impressive with 2 walks in 5.1 innings. It still featured 5 strikeouts and, ultimately, was a winning effort. One start does not a complete picture make -- nor should it radically alter our opinion of Lynn even considering the first start as well. There should be a point soon, however, where the body of evidence -- and the narrative -- is no longer that of a fifth starter but of Lynn's remarkable transition from fifth-starter-type-prospect to improved-starter-prospect to MLB bullpen relief ace to good starting pitcher.

There is an element of this that is reminiscent for me of Jaime Garcia's path to the majors. Garcia was regarded as a good pitching prospect. Arguably a #2 or #3 starter with his mix of a heavy fastball and plus curveball. Now, after two full years in the majors, Garcia owns the 14th best FIP in MLB over that time. Better than Adam Wainwright. Better than Chris Carpenter. How often is Jaime Garcia called an ace? Rarely. Should he be? I don't know.

The point is that the Jaime Garcia of the majors has been unexpectedly good. We thought he'd be good but few thought he'd be this good.

It is not my intent to regale you with comparisons of Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia. They are radically different pitchers at different stages in their career but there's an odd parallel to their stories. In both cases, the narrative lagged the reality. Narratives are sticky things cast by writers to explain players or situations. They are intended to enhance and characterize our understanding of those topics. In almost every instance though, the narrative is behind the times. It may be right but it is right due to the present matching the past more than the narrative accurately describing the present.

I write today to tell you that Lynn is not who you think he is. He's not who I once thought he was. Lynn in 2012 is a fundamentally different pitcher than he was at the draft. He's a different pitcher than he was in the first half of 2010. The narrative is lagging and out of date. Lynn will almost certainly not continue pitching as effectively as in his first two starts but it's time to shake the shackles of the fifth starter narrative.

Lance Lynn has.