Starting pitching means everything in the playoffs. Until Matt Carpenter hits his fourth home run in six postseason games, Oscar Taveras shows off his skills with a game-tying blast, Matt Adams breaks the deadlock with a bomb of his own, the bullpen blows the game in the ninth, and then Kolten Wong hits the fourth walkoff homer for the Cardinals in the playoffs in the last 30 years. Then, starting pitching is easy to forget, but Lance Lynn gave the Cardinals a second straight solid outing in the playoffs, and his efforts should not be overlooked.
Properly "rating" players is difficult when it comes to figuring out if a player is overrated or underrated because so much of the discussion is based on the perception of a player and different segments of the total group can have vastly different opinions on the same subject. Lance Lynn is an example of how fragmented views can be about Lynn's value as a pitcher.
Lance Lynn's 48 pitcher wins in the past three seasons are very shiny to some, close to meaningless to others. An ERA in the high threes in 2012 and 2013 elicits little enthusiasm, but his 2.74 ERA (ranking 9th in the NL) in 2014 signals a breakthrough. His demeanor on the mound with a little extra sweat draws criticism and discussion of whether Lynn gives up big innings. Entering 2014, he had yet to have a definitive playoff performance. He showed a lot of power coming out of the bullpen in 2011, but when given the opportunity to start in 2012 and 2013, he did not have great results. He did win two games in the 2013 NLCS, but that was Wacha's time and one of the wins came in relief.
Despite all of those wins, underrated is a fair way to describe Lynn prior to 2014. Coming into the season, Lance Lynn was a bit of an afterthought. Adam Wainwright was coming off another great season. Michael Wacha emerged in the 2013 playoffs as a potential ace. Shelby Miller had disappointed down the stretch and disappeared in the playoffs, but much was still expected from him. Jaime Garcia planned to factor in as the lefty alternative. As ridiculous as it sounds now, Lynn began the spring in a nominal competition for a starting role. Garcia's injury guaranteed Lynn's spot leaving the competition between Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez.
This season, just like in 2012 and 2013, Lance Lynn has performed solidly above average, eating innings and providing very good results. I wrote in early May that criticism of Lynn might come not as a result of the pitcher he is, but the pitcher that people want him to be. Lance Lynn is not Adam Wainwright, but he is not Joe Kelly either. Lynn remains in the just-below-ace status, not quite breaking through. That status has brought forth differing perceptions of Lynn despite his tremendous value. Ben Humphrey wrote about Lynn's perceived breakout in August, noting that much of his success was actually an evening out between his peripheral statistics and his ERA:
In the preseason, I wrote about how advanced statistics indicated that Lynn was poised for a breakout 2014 campaign. The contours of that breakout are a bit different than one might have anticipated when pitchers and catchers were reporting to Jupiter. But it's nonetheless been good to see the third-year starter establish himself as a rotation stalwart. Lynn has been just what the Cardinals needed in the rotation this year. I don't know where the team would be without him.
Given his success this season, it no longer "feels" as if Lance Lynn is underrated. Before last night's game, I noted his ranks in the National League over the past two seasons:
After Wainwright’s difficult start, Cardinals should feel good about Lance Lynn. Since 2013, Lynn is 8th in NL IP, 7th in Ks and 9th in fWAR— viva el birdos (@vivaelbirdos) October 13, 2014
For the second time in as many playoff starts, Lance Lynn opened the game following a poor start from Cardinals' ace Adam Wainwright. A compromised Wainwright failed to deliver in Los Angeles, but an incredible rally bailed him out. Lynn proceeded to go six strong innings, giving up two runs while striking out eight and giving up two walks. Matt Carpenter stole the show in the seventh only to see Matt Kemp and the Dodgers steal it right back. The game was a loss, but Lynn pitched one of the best games of his career considering the oversized stage of the playoffs.
The situation was slightly more dire for the Cardinals entering last night's game. Wainwright again failed to deliver in Game 1, but without a rally, the Cardinals found themselves down 1-0 and headed away from home after the game. Again Lynn delivered. He did not strike out any batters through four innings, but kept the Giants scoreless. He got three of his final five outs via the strikeout and gave up a couple runs, but kept the ball in the park and the Cardinals in the game. Through two playoff starts in 2014, Lynn has pitched 11 2/3 innings, struck out eleven and walked three for an ERA of 3.09 and a FIP of 2.02.
In a back and forth of game featuring homers from fan-favorites in Carpenter and Adams and hyped rookies in Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras, Lance Lynn's performance has gone under the radar. Just as he has the past three seasons, Lynn keeps pitching his game, and the results have followed. Ben said it in August and now the same is true for me in October: I don't know where the team would be without him.