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How much should we fear Lance Lynn’s velocity drop?

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The fastball pitcher has thrown slower fastballs since his return from Tommy John surgery.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

For most of this decade, Lance Lynn has been a steady and often overlooked part of the St. Louis Cardinals rotation. From 2012, his first season spent primarily in the Cardinals rotation (his late-season demotion to the bullpen in favor of Joe Kelly, whom the Boston Red Sox have seemingly realized best serves in relief himself), through 2015, Lynn was worth 13 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement—among Cardinals pitchers, this ranks second to Adam Wainwright, and among all pitchers in baseball, it puts him in the top twenty. Lynn ranked slightly worse by Baseball Reference WAR, 27th, but he was sandwiched between Jon Lester and Anibal Sanchez—not exactly terrible company.

Lynn never composed a season worthy of even down-ballot Cy Young consideration—his best season by Fielding Independent Pitching was 2013, a year in which he was frequently maligned by fans for his above-average earned run average, and in 2014, when his ERA was suddenly lower than his FIP, he still had nowhere near the Cy Young credentials of his teammate Wainwright, much less eventual winner and NL MVP Clayton Kershaw.

But while the results of the defense behind him varied, Lynn’s individual performance was steady. And his pitching repertoire was somewhat predictable—a steady diet of fastballs. 56.5% of pitches he has thrown in his career have been four-seam fastballs. 19.7% have been two-seam fastballs. For good measure, he also utilized a cutter in his rookie season of 2011, although this ultimately means a somewhat immaterial 0.3% of his career pitches have been this type.

Over three-fourths of Lance Lynn’s career pitches have been fastballs. Although he would throw curveballs and sliders throughout the years to keep hitters off balance, his bread and butter/meat and potatoes/whatever other food pairing you want to go with has been pretty predictable—throw the ball really fast and make the batter miss it.

And the strategy was effective because Lance Lynn was throwing the ball hard. Of the 128 starting pitchers with 100 or more innings in 2012, Lynn’s 92.7 miles per hour four-seamer velocity ranked tied for 24th. Of the 139 starters to match the same criteria in 2013, Lynn ranked tied for 37th—for some perspective, he was tied with Clayton Kershaw, not necessarily known for being an elite fireballer along the lines of Stephen Strasburg but nevertheless known for being Clayton Kershaw. 140 starters threw 100+ innings in 2014; Lynn ranked tied for 39th. Lynn’s relative rank dropped off a little bit in 2015—tied for 48th of 133 starters—but he was still above average and more than capable of avoiding National League bats with his raw stuff.

But with Lance Lynn about to resume his MLB career tomorrow, following today’s weather postponement, after a season missed due to Tommy John surgery, Cardinals fans are right to be concerned about whether or not Lynn can produce at the same level he did pre-surgery.

During Lynn’s Spring debut on February 27, his fastballs were in the 89 to 90 MPH range according to KMOX. On March 25, when Lynn was removed from a Spring Training game (for precautionary reasons), he was throwing again in the high-80s.

For some pitchers, throwing in this range would not be cause for much concern. R.A. Dickey or Jered Weaver might throw a party for breaking out such overpowering stuff. But for a pitcher like Lance Lynn, velocity is everything. And if what we saw in Spring Training is a sincere reflection of things to come rather than a blip on the radar, Lynn may have no choice but to reinvent himself.

Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, just a year older than Lynn, was able to successfully transition from predominantly a fastball pitcher in 2009 to predominantly a sinker pitcher in 2010 with roughly equal success—he was an otherworldly 2009 season from Zack Greinke away from winning consecutive Cy Young Awards. And while his weapon of choice changed, velocity was a common theme—Hernandez went from baseball’s 10th fastest fastball in 2009 to baseball’s 5th fastest sinker in 2010 as his top pitch.

As recently at 2014, Hernandez was an elite, Cy Young-caliber pitcher. But he declined in 2015 and was even worse in 2016. And his declining velocity is a solid hypothesis as to why—his peak sinker velocity in 2016 of 93.2 MPH matches his average sinker velocity from just five years prior. His fastball peak of 93.1 MPH is slower than his career fastball average of 93.7 and is 8.3 miles per hour less than his career peak.

That a pitcher’s velocity declines as he ages is not exactly news. But in a sport that prioritizes pitch speed more than ever before, pitchers who survived in their younger days on simply throwing the ball really hard must find ways to reinvent themselves, lest they be replaced by a newer, shinier, harder throwing model.

But sometimes there are exceptions to this rule. Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander has always had a complete arsenal of pitches, but in his MVP and unanimous Cy Young winning season of 2011, he actually threw fewer fastballs than in his near-Cy Young campaign in 2016. But in Verlander’s case, his perceived decline in 2014 was probably a bit overstated—while his fielding-independent pitching was slightly worse than normal, it was far better than his porous 4.54 ERA would suggest. And through all of this, Verlander still has, at 93.7 MPH, a solidly above-average fastball.

A few Spring Training starts should not be enough to write off Lance Lynn’s entire baseball future. He is still just 29 years old, and while 2017 may end up being his final season in a Cardinals uniform, as he approaches free agency, he certainly hopes to have a long career ahead of him. Reinvention is possible, and in the case of a somewhat one-dimensional power pitcher like Lance Lynn, it may be necessary.