Lance Lynn continues to be one of the most divisive figures among the Cardinals fan base, and his first two starts have done little to settle his place as a Cardinals player. Lynn has pitched well the past two seasons, striking out roughly a batter an inning, and proving to be an above average innings-eater with the potential to do more if he could solve his deficiency against left-handed hitters. During the offseason, VEBer stlfan wrote three fanposts discussing Lynn (Part I, Part II, Part III). Part II of the fanposts discusses Lynn's troubles against lefties. Taking the information we know about how Lynn has approached lefties in the past with a few early plate appearances this season against some very tough matchups, we can take a look at whether Lynn has changed his previously unsuccessful approach.
Aside: Before getting into the Lynn data available, it is probably necessary to note this post will not be discussing how hard Lynn has been hit. Home runs serve as a sufficient proxy for these purposes. Lynn's BABIP (against) will not be a part of this post. During the last twenty years, 186 starting pitchers have exceeded 1,000 innings pitched. All but seven of those pitchers have BABIPs that are .270 or greater and .315 or less. Only eighteen pitchers had a BABIP under .280. The list is a mix of great pitchers as well as those not so great. Even excluding the effect of park and defense, if a pitcher has identifiable and quantifiable sustainable skills that yield a BABIP of .280, the effect is nowhere near as significant as strikeouts and walks among pitchers. If the average BABIP of a major league pitcher is .295 (last season league-wide BABIP was .294 and it has hovered between .289 and .299 since 1994), and in an average start there are 20 balls put in play, a pitcher with a .280 BABIP making five starts in a month will get three more outs over the course of two months.
Contrast that with strikeouts. Last season, 81 pitchers qualified for the ERA title. The difference in strikeout percentage between 10th and 40th is about five percent. Assuming 28 batters faced, the difference is 1.4 strikeouts per start. Over the same two month period, that amounts to nearly five more innings of outs compared to the one extra inning from the assumed BABIP difference. Repeating the same exercise for walks, the 10th and 40th qualified pitchers last season were roughly 4% apart when it came to walk percentage. This would amount to close to four extra innings. Strikeouts and walks are often in sabermetrics to determine pitcher value because there is considerably more certainty surrounding them than with balls in play, but there is also considerably more impact even if we could appropriately measure a pitcher's skill level when it comes to BABIP. Bringing the post back to Lynn, for his career, his BABIP against right-handers is a fairly high .316. His BABIP against left-handers is also high. It's .316. The walks, lack of strikeouts, and home runs have cost Lynn against left-handers, not balls in play.
Focusing on the results so far this year, which have been bad (.500/.550/.833 in 20 plate appearances with 12 coming against Joey Votto and Jay Bruce) is probably not too useful at this stage, but the approach Lynn has taken thus far could help determine if he has changed his strategy. Lynn's prior approach has not worked. Starting with the first pitch, here is what Lynn did last year against lefties by location.
Now here is what he has done so far this year.
Lynn is still pitching mostly away, and pitching in the strike zone less than half of the time. His percentage of first pitches in the zone was around five percent less to lefties compared to righties in 2013. According to Brooks Baseball, of the seven pitches Lynn has pitched in the zone on the first pitch, just one, a single, has gone for a hit in five swings. The two pitches up and away but in the strike zone have both gone for swings and misses. The same pitch last season yielded just one swing and a miss last season, although not a single ball was put in play on eight pitches in 2013. This year, the one low and away pitch in the strikeout resulted in a ground ball out. Lynn did not get any swings and misses from pitches outside the strike zone. Eighteen of the twenty pitches were some form of fastball, including both swings and misses, which were four-seamers.
Moving away from the first pitch, here is Lynn's overall pitch chart against left-handers in 2013.
Now, compare to the very early season numbers this season.
It is still early on in the season, but the charts above do not show much of a difference from 2013. If Lynn pitches the exact same way this season as he has done in the past, Lynn will likely be the same, effective pitcher he has been in the past, but with continued problems against lefties.
The easiest change Lynn could make, as stlfan noted among the recommendations in the second fanpost, is to throw more first-pitch strikes. Throwing a strike on the first pitch is important for all pitchers. After an 0-1 count, hitters had a slash line of .223/.263/.338 throughout the majors in 2013 compared to .269/.378/.433 after 1-0. With Lynn, the effect is even more pronounced. After 0-1 counts, Lynn is even better than average, with hitters hitting just .207/.250/.299 after an 0-1 count in 2013. The reverse is true after 1-0 counts for Lynn, where hitters were better than league average in 2013, hitting .294/.423/.445. Getting ahead has a big impact on Lynn's ability to get batters out.
Hitters do have healthy statistics against Lynn when hitting the first pitch with a .363/.386/.563 line, although his home run rate and extra base hit rate are in line with the league average on first pitches. However, even when pitching in the strike zone, hitters do not always swing, and when they do, the result is often a foul ball. When hitters swung on the first pitch against Lynn in 2013, their line was .253/.289/.376 with five times as many strikeouts as walks.
Pitching more strikes against hitters that already perform extremely well against Lynn may seem counter-intuitive, but exchanging a little extra first pitch damage for a first pitch strike the rest of the time may well be worth a shot. The old way was not working, and it is not clear this season that Lynn has implemented any changes to his prior strategies. If Lynn is to reach his potential, he needs to do a better job against left-handed hitters. Throwing more first pitch strikes might not be the answer, but until he tries something new, it is fair to call his strategy into question.