Back on July 4th of last year, after hours of PITCHf/x data collection from BrooksBaseball, I published an article titled "Adam Wainwright and the art of the set-up pitch." The thought process behind the article was to look at the final two pitches of each strikeout Wainwright recorded up to that point in the season and see if I could spot any noticeable trends in his approach. Was Wainwright consistently using a certain pitch to "set up" a "put-away" pitch? Was he turning to his "Uncle Charlie" to nail down that elusive third strike? I discovered that the majority of his finishing two-pitch strikeout sequences included his curveball, with "cutter-curveball" being the most-used combination.
In hindsight, Wainwright's sample size is actually relatively small—just 76 strikeouts (of 106 total in the first half)—compared to the totality of Lance Lynn's in 2014. Excluding strikeouts of opposing pitchers (because I think most pitchers utilize a different approach when another pitcher is in the batter's box), I collected data on 162 of Lynn's 181 strikeouts last season (and the spreadsheet can be found here). After looking at each individual matchup, I formed five categories: 1) Finishing two-pitch sequence, 2) Velocity of final two pitches, 3) Location of final two pitches, 4) Name of opposing hitter, and 5) If the "put-away" pitch was the fastest of the at bat (I'll explain this one further below).
Now, before we can get into the fun stuff, it is helpful to be familiar with the pitches that make up Lynn's repertoire, how often he throws each pitch, and his average pitch velocities in 2014:
2014 Pitch Information
While he throws his beautiful fourseamer a whole lot, this table shows that he may not throw it as often as one would think, largely because he likes using his sinker as well. Given their similar velocity, it can be understandably difficult to distinguish between the two while watching Lynn pitch live. Next on the list is his cutter which he goes to a little over 10% of the time and has a velocity that rivals some pitchers' fastballs. Rounding out Lynn's repertoire is an ~80 MPH curveball, a hard changeup (~86 MPH), and a statistically insignificant slider (as he threw only 25 all season).
Finishing Two-Pitch Sequences
The chart makes it abundantly clear that "fourseamer-fourseamer" was Lynn's go-to "set-up" and "put-away" sequence in 2014 as it made up 44.44% (72/162) of the strikeouts. Even further, Lynn's fourseamer was supremely important to his strikeout success as it was used in 87.7% (142/162) of the documented strikeout sequences. If I would have also included strikeouts by opposing pitchers, one could reasonably assume that this percentage would have been even higher. If you classify his cutter as a"hard" pitch (as BrooksBaseball currently does), you have to work your way down to the sixth-most-used sequence before finding one that includes a breaking ball or changeup (seven strikeouts recorded with a "curveball-fourseamer" closing sequence).
While the significance of FanGraphs' pitch values can certainly be debatable (and hopefully articles such as this one can motivate pitch analysts and statisticians much smarter than me to work on putting a number on the value of "set-up" pitches), it is no surprise that Lynn's fastball has been valued at 43.8 runs above average (second highest in baseball) since being given a permanent spot in the Cardinals rotation back in 2012. It is an insanely effective pitch for Lynn, and I would not be surprised if he uses it even more in 2015 and beyond, especially while he enters his prime and is still able to maintain plus fourseamer velocity for a starting pitcher.
Because I rounded velocities to whole numbers (for ease of collection), there were 33 sequences in which Lynn threw two pitches of the same velocity back-to-back. Given first chart showing how many times Lynn went "fourseamer-fourseamer," this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. I have created an informal theory for why Lynn went from slower to faster 79 times despite often throwing pitches of similar velocity (i.e. fourseamer, sinker) and that is the notion that he consciously or subconsciously "ramps up" his fastball velocity when he knows he is one pitch away from a strikeout.
If I was given access to have an interview with Lynn, this is definitely something I would ask him, though I am not sure he would be too candid with his answer as this is something that directly affects his success as a pitcher. Also, for closure, this "theory" is the exact reason why I included a fifth category in my data collection. I was curious to see how often the last pitch of the strikeout was the fastest pitch of the at bat, and data shows me that this was the case 48.15% (78/162) of the time.
Chart key: Vertical location: U=Up, D=Down, M=Middle; Horizontal location: O=Out, I=In, M=Middle
While much of this chart is "for what it's worth" material, the reason I included it is because for a pitcher who often throws the same pitch back-to-back, location can be crucial for success. Lynn matched pitch locations in only 27 of the 162 documented strikeouts (17%), and of those 27, 19 (70%) of them consisted of differing pitch choices or at the very minimum, differing velocities—often faster, providing some evidence for my "ramping up" theory. Of note, I didn't include location sequences occurring two times or fewer in the chart due to it already being way too big.
Specific Hitter Matchups
Lynn struck out 2014 National League All-Star Todd Frazier seven times last season. According to BrooksBaseball, Frazier is a career .239 hitter with 135 strikeouts versus fourseamers, and it is clear Lynn has "read the book" on the Reds infielder because he went "fourseamer-fourseamer" in six of the seven strikeouts. Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton has no business handling Lynn's fastball, and it shows as five of his six strikeouts against Lynn were "fourseamer-fourseamer" with the sixth being the very similar "fourseamer-sinker." The last matchup I will highlight is Eric Young, Jr. (a .247 hitter with 115 strikeouts versus fourseamers). Predictably, all four of Young's strikeouts ended with the "fourseamer-fourseamer" sequence.
Favorite Strikeout of 2014
The unique combination of pitch type, velocity, and location versus Justin Morneau on June 23rd makes for my overall favorite Lynn strikeout from the 2014 season:
Lynn has an incredibly effective fourseam fastball that dictates much of his strikeout success. As he enters his age-28 season and the first year of a freshly-signed three-year extension, his fourseamer's velocity will be something to keep a close eye on because it will help determine whether or not he can remain an extremely valuable 3+ fWAR pitcher.