Friday, I wrote this. It was a post about how Mike Moustakas didn’t make sense for the Cardinals even given his bargain-bin contract, given that (1) the Cardinals already have equivalent players; (2) Moustakas wouldn’t want St. Louis on a pillow contract anyway; and (3) spending just to spend is silly.
Over the weekend, news broke that Lance Lynn will spend 2018 pitching for the Minnesota Twins, for the relatively paltry sum of $12 million. And in a weird way, from a writer’s perspective, I was ticked that the announcement came after the Moustakas news instead of before. Because my reaction to the Lynn news was, from a purely analytical perspective, almost exactly the same as to the Moustakas news. I could have written exactly that post about Lynn instead, and now I don’t get to because that would be excessively lazy. So I won’t. But, just for the record, every single thing I said in that post would port seamlessly into one about Lynn.
That might sound controversial, especially the assertion that Lynn wouldn’t make the 2018 team appreciably better. At the most superficial level, it looks obviously wrong: Lynn’s ERA was 3.43 last year, which is lower than any of the projected members of the Cardinals’ April rotation (except Miles Mikolas, but he was pitching in Japan). It is also lower than the projected ERA of any Cardinal starter this year — and all but one member of the bullpen. If we just look at ERA, it looks like the Cardinals just let one of their very best pitchers walk away on the cheap.
Especially given the price tag, some have criticized the Cardinals for not signing Lynn to solidify the back of the rotation. Given the uncertainty inherent in young pitching, Adam Wainwright’s decline, and the fact that all of Miles Mikolas’s success was in Japan, Lynn would have provided — the thinking goes — a needed dose of certainty. And again, if we just look at ERA, this seems to have merit: Lynn has never put up an ERA higher than 3.97 in any season.
The problem is that Lance Lynn’s peripherals last year were pretty bad, and peripherals do a better job predicting future ERA than past ERA does. VEB overlord emeritus Craig Edwards beat me to writing this up over at FanGraphs this morning, so I’ll just steal some stuff (hi Craig!):
During his first four years as a starter, from 2012 to 2015, the Cardinals hurler struck out 23% of batters, walked 9%, and surrendered homers on just 8% of fly balls. Last season — his first back from Tommy John surgery and rehab — Lynn’s strikeouts dropped to 20%, his walks increased to 10%, and he gave up homers on 14% of fly balls. Those factors combined to produce a mediocre 4.82 FIP and 1.4 WAR season.
The reasons to think Lynn isn’t actually that bad are laid out well in Craig’s piece, which I encourage you to read in full. Pitchers often say they don’t have the full feel for pitching back in their first year pitching with a new elbow ligament. It’s doubtful Lynn went from being well above average at preventing home runs on fly balls to below average (though it’s notable that 14% is only barely below average these days), so he likely has some positive regression coming there.
Still, Lynn’s fastball velocity is down a couple ticks from his first couple years in the league, and he’s a guy who famously just throws fastballs. His strikeout rate has been trending down for years even as the league’s rate has risen. The fluky gap between Lynn’s peripherals and his ERA in 2017 masked the fact that he just isn’t the reliable mid-threes FIP guy he was from 2012-15.
There’s enough upside left in Lynn’s profile that he could still easily prove to be an above-average pitcher in 2018. But there’s also plenty of downside. He still could be that above-average guy, but we don’t know he’s that guy. That’s why the Cardinals and 29 other teams passed on his demand for a multi-year deal, and why the team that did sign him limited it to one year at a salary that reflects a shrug of the shoulders and a guess that he’s average.
As John pointed out over the weekend, the ZiPS projection system has Lynn as just the 8th-best starting pitcher on the Cardinals. I’d bump him up a bit from that, personally, but I’m not at all certain that he’s better than Jack Flaherty, or Alex Reyes, or Miles Mikolas, or even Adam Wainwright (who had the opposite of Lynn’s 2017, with a bad ERA masking peripherals that were actually solid — and whose rotation spot isn’t going anywhere, Lynn or no Lynn, unless he’s hurt). Certainty at the back of the rotation would be nice. Unfortunately, Lynn isn’t a guy who provides it any longer.
All of which is a long-winded way of explaining why I used the word “fine” in the title here. But I put an asterisk on it, and this post is really about the asterisk.
I really liked Lance Lynn and I’m sad he’s gone. I wish he’d taken the $17.4 million qualified offer the team made. I don’t blame them for this — how can you, nobody saw this coming — but I wish the team and Lynn’s agent had seen all this coming and signed a one-year extension in November, before the Cardinals went elsewhere to add rotation depth. I wish Miles Mikolas were Lance Lynn. I might come to like him eventually, but Miles Mikolas is my stepdad, and Lance is my real dad. It sucks that it turned out this way.
Lance Lynn was a big burly dude who just threw fastballs and had a quiet sense of humor about it. He gave great postgame material. He had a funny deal with Jim Hayes. He did an interview in a camel suit. He was a middling prospect who did the classic middling Cardinals prospect thing where he just seemed to shrug his shoulders one offseason and get better at one big thing (in his case, throwing a few MPH harder out of nowhere) and suddenly become an above-average MLBer. He pitched a bunch of important innings out of the bullpen during the most enjoyable run of baseball of this or any other lifetime, and then kinda chuckled and took his I-don’t-need-no-stinking-secondary-stuff approach to the rotation and made it work for four years, as a big part of good teams.
Lance Lynn was never really appreciated enough, until he was. And now he’s gone and I’ll miss him more than I realized. I hope he pitches his ass off in Minnesota and somebody pays him a ton of money next winter.