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What was different for St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn in 2014?

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Lance Lynn's ERA vastly outperformed his FIP in 2014. What was different for him as compared to the previous two seasons?

Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of overall value, 2014 was not all that different from 2012 or 2013 for St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn. However, as his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) suggested for two straight seasons, his 2014 Earned Run Average (ERA) significantly improved, even more than one could have reasonably predicted. In fact, his 2.74 ERA in 2014 ranked ninth best in the National League—a drastic, but welcome change from 2013, when he had the league's eleventh highest ERA (3.97) among starting pitchers.

So, what was different for Lynn in 2014? The quick answer is "not that much," but in all honesty, you probably wouldn't be reading articles at Viva El Birdos if you wanted quick answers. Thus, when looking at his process, he made at least one obvious change (throwing more sinkers, especially to left-handed hitters). This change in the process influenced some of his results (i.e. lower K%, higher GB%, better numbers versus lefties, etc.).

Year G GS IP W L K% BB% ERA FIP fWAR bWAR
2012 35 29 176.0 18 7 24.2% 8.6% 3.78 3.49 2.8 2.2
2013 33 33 201.2 15 10 23.1% 8.9% 3.97 3.28 3.4 1.8
2014 33 33 203.2 15 10 20.9% 8.3% 2.74 3.35 3.1 3.7

When comparing 2014 to previous seasons, two differences stand out in particular: a lower K% and a lower ERA (as already discussed above). However, with just the information in this table to work with, we have no idea what Lynn could have possibly done differently in 2014. Thus, using PITCHF/x data from BrooksBaseball.net, let's take an even closer look.

2012-2013 Pitch information

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (MPH) Horiz. movement (in.) Vert. release (ft.)
Fourseam 50.82% 93.71 -5.44 5.60
Sinker 20.97% 92.56 -8.09 5.50
Change 5.10% 85.03 -6.24 5.41
Curve 14.11% 79.99 6.14 5.55
Cutter 8.99% 87.85 0.59 5.45

2014 Pitch information

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (MPH) Horiz. movement (in.) Vert. release (ft.)
Fourseam 53.23% 93.85 -5.28 5.60
Sinker 25.44% 92.19 -7.84 5.56
Change 2.57% 86.25 -7.70 5.50
Curve 7.89% 80.16 4.93 5.53
Cutter 10.16% 88.68 -0.10 5.51

The first thing I look at, especially when dealing with a fastball-heavy pitcher like Lynn, is velocity, and as you can see the velocities on Lynn's fourseamer and sinker in 2014 are virtually identical to what they were from 2012 through 2013. This is a very positive sign, but not all that unexpected for a pitcher just three big-league seasons into his career. Next, to see if the pitcher has developed any recognizable change in his overall approach, I look at pitch frequency. With Lynn, we see that he reached back for his fourseamer (+2.41%) and his sinker (+4.47%) more often in 2014 than he had in the past. From 2012-2013, he went with one of his fastballs ~72% of the time (an already high amount). Well, in 2014, this fastball frequency increased to an insanely high ~79%.

Moving on from pitch frequency, I look at horizontal movement to see if the ball is coming out of the pitcher's hand any differently. As with velocity, the horizontal movement on his fourseamer and sinker are essentially the same. His curve lost just over an inch of horizontal movement, but he uses it 50% less than what he used to (and it still breaks in the opposite direction from his fastballs), so that's not really a big deal. A negative horizontal movement (down and away to lefties) on his cutter shows that the pitch, on average, actually backed up in 2014, but it retained a large enough difference from his fastballs' horizontal movements to remain effective.

Lastly, I look at vertical release points to make sure there aren't any year-to-year changes, but in particular, any pitch-by-pitch changes. A fastball-reliant pitcher wants vertical release points to be virtually identical. As you can see in the tables above, Lynn improved the consistency of his release points and made them much more uniform across his repertoire.

Overall results versus left-handed hitters

Year TBF AVG OBP SLG wOBA K BB K:BB
2012 370 .268 .384 .456 .366 69 53 1.30
2013 380 .252 .361 .404 .340 71 49 1.45
2014 378 .243 .325 .372 .314 65 39 1.67

Prior to 2014, Lynn was brutal against left-handed hitters. His lefty/righty splits were well-documented, including right here on this site. Lynn had the best year of his career against lefties in 2014. The .314 wOBA lefties put up against Lynn in 2014 was a significant drop-off from 2013 (-.026) and even more so 2012 (-.052). According to Fangraphs, a .314 falls in the "below average" range of wOBA which essentially means Lynn had above average success against lefties. Another key component to his success was his decrease in walks which led to an increase in his K:BB ratio. If he is able to cut down on his walks even more, one could reasonably expect continued success against lefties in 2015.

Process and results per pitch versus left-handed hitters from 2012-2013

Pitch Type Frequency Whiffs GB LD AVG SLG ISO
Fourseam 44.30% 10.94% 3.43% 3.36% .235 .432 .197
Sinker 27.04% 3.98% 11.71% 4.68% .339 .475 .137
Change 10.39% 9.15% 8.54% 3.35% .197 .295 .098
Curve 14.47% 10.50% 6.78% 3.50% .277 .410 .133
Cutter 3.80% 15.83% 5.00% 5.00% .259 .444 .185

Process and results per pitch versus left-handed hitters in 2014

Pitch Type Frequency Whiffs GB LD AVG SLG ISO
Fourseam 47.20% 11.05% 4.47% 3.95% .221 .372 .151
Sinker 31.55% 3.74% 12.60% 4.33% .287 .333 .046
Change 5.78% 5.38% 10.75% 6.45% .348 .522 .174
Curve 9.07% 6.85% 11.64% 3.42% .143 .229 .086
Cutter 6.15% 11.11% 5.05% 7.07% .350 .700 .350

Overall, Lynn used his sinker 25.44% of the time in 2014 (a ~4.5% increase from 2012-2013). Well, against lefties, his sinker usage increased to 31.55% (a ~4.5% increase from 2012-2013 as well). From 2012-2013, Lynn's sinker was not effective at all against lefties, but this was not the case in 2014 as he held hitters to a .333 slugging percentage and a minuscule ISO of .046. Of note, Lynn experienced more success with his fourseam fastball in 2014 as well. So, regarding his sinker, what was different last season? Location. Location. Location.

Sinker location versus left-handed hitters

Year Away and Off Plate Bottom 2 rows (no overlap with zones from previous column) Total
2012-2013 59.19% 26.04% 85.23%
2014 67.72% 23.63% 91.35%

One of the biggest reasons Lynn experienced more success with his sinker versus left-handers in 2014 is the fact that he placed the pitch in pretty harmless locations over 91% of the time (a ~6% increase from 2012-2013). With nearly 68% of his sinkers away and off the plate, it is no surprise that hitters managed such a low ISO versus the pitch. He got to 91.35% by throwing nearly 24% of his pitches in the bottom two rows of the heat map. For what it's worth, Lynn threw only five sinkers (0.98%) right down the middle to lefties in 2014. (FYI: Both sets of years provide hyperlinks to BrooksBaseball if you want to see the heat maps yourself.)

Bottom line

With velocity, horizontal movement, and vertical release point all remaining roughly the same, better location helped Lynn be successful with his sinker versus lefties. This effectiveness versus lefties was a key component to a more consistent 2014. For Lynn's long-term success, he will need to build on the progress he had in 2014 (particularly versus lefties). He throws some of the "heaviest" fastballs in the league which allow him to get away with some poorly-located pitches at times. If he is able to continue locating these fastballs in relatively harmless locations going forward, there is a good chance he will hear his name chosen to represent the National League in the All-Star Game—as early as next season. His decrease in strikeout rate is rightfully concerning to some, but if he is able to locate his fastballs as well as he did in 2014, batted ball fortunes will likely continue to go his way.

Update: For even more thoughts on Lynn, read this article by Aaron Finkel from November.

As usual, credit to BrooksBaseball for the data collected for this post. Follow the site's staff members on Twitter: @brooksbaseball@harrypav, and @SixToolPlayer.