Lance Lynn? Lance Lynn!!!! Why are the St. Louis Cardinals signing a batting practice pitcher for $11 million! I guess if Stubby Clapp’s arm needs a break then you gotta do what you gotta do.
These are all thoughts that went through my brain immediately after the Cardinals first major acquisition of the winter was announced.
Suffice it so say that I was not a fan of the move at first.
But then I sat on it and thought about it. This really isn’t a bad move. Necessarily. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to say it’s a good move but I’m withholding my final judgement for now. That’s because, as we’ve said all offseason here at VEB, there are multiple ways to build a rotation.
The Cardinals need 3 pitchers. We all knew that heading into the offseason. This is 1 of the 3 and it’s 1 that adds floor to the pitching staff. Between Mikolas and Lynn, the Cardinals now have a pair of innings eaters that should give the rotation a solid floor when injuries start to occur.
That means the team can now chase upside. Think of Tyler Glasnow here. He’ll probably get hurt but when he does, the rotation won’t fall apart. But what if he doesn’t get hurt? He’s an ace when he’s healthy and having 2 durable starters behind him frees the Cardinals to take that chance and chase that upside.
How about Blake Snell? He doesn’t usually throw a ton of innings but he can be dominant on the mound. If the Cardinals end up with him now, the risk of the rotation falling apart is a lot less.
So that’s my premise with Lynn. If he’s the #5 then the move is fine enough, and maybe even good, but I still want to see the Cardinals bring in a pair of legitimately good pitchers to slot above Mikolas in the rotation.
...looks like a solid rotation. Insert whoever you want in the top two slots: Glasnow, Yamamoto, Snell, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery, Dylan Cease, etc. The signing of Lynn doesn’t mean the Cardinals are aiming low and shooting for 3 mid-to-back-end starters. Yet.
If that does happen, then I won’t be a fan of the signing because I think there are guys, Kenta Maeda (projected AAV of $12 million per Fangraphs) in particular, with more upside who could have been had at a similar price point.
The Cardinals want the innings that Lynn can provide, though, and that’s fair. Now I’m hoping they look for some upside atop the rotation.
If there is one thing I feel confident about after the Lynn signing it’s that the Cardinals are absolutely signing 3 starting pitchers. There is not a chance in the world that Lynn is the second best starter brought in this offseason (I hope). At the very least, that’s a good sign.
So, now that I’ve given my high level thoughts on the signing, I do want to continue my target breakdown series, this time breaking down someone the Cardinals have already targeted instead of someone they might target in the future.
We all know about the home run issue with Lynn so I don’t want to start with that. Don’t worry, though, I’ll cover it extensively later.
Instead, I want to start by pointing out the upside that the Cardinals see with Lynn. The right hander posted a 15.6% K-BB%, which was a good amount better than the 14.1% league average rate. That’s especially good for #5 starter.
Lynn can still miss bats and limit his free passes, even if he did get worse at those things in 2023. His 23.6% strikeout rate is a solid figure for an innings eater and it was even higher 26.9%) before he got traded to the Dodgers. His K% may be down a touch from 2022 but it’s still fair to say that he possesses the kind of swing and miss the Cardinals are looking for.
And then there’s his walk rate. Lynn walked 8.3% of the batters he faced in 2023 and while that’s better than the league average it’s a far cry from his 3.7% walk rate a year ago. It’s also his highest walk rate since 2018. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Lynn’s strikeout rate was also the worst it’s been since 2018.
Lynn is definitely on the downswing in his career but we all knew that. He turns 37 in May. The Cardinals are hoping he has just enough left to provide value in 2024 and maybe even 2025.
And this is where the discussion of home runs comes in because that’s really where we’ll learn if Lynn can still produce or if he’s completely borked.
The righty’s home run rate was an absurd 2.16 HR/9 in 2023. That’s the second highest HR/9 this century, behind only Jose Lima’s 2000 season (2.20 HR). That’s why he fell off a cliff this year. His numbers would look a whole lot better with a bad home run rate instead of a horrific one but that’s not what happened. He got absolutely shelled.
It’s interesting to look one layer deeper. It we look at Lynn’s HR/FB%, we’ll notice that his fly balls left the park at an extremely high rate. The idea behind xFIP is that this HR/FB% is volatile so if we normalize that rate to the league average, we can get a good look at what a pitcher’s true talent might be. Essentially, it tries to strip batted ball variance out of the equation.
That doesn’t work for every pitcher. Some pitchers, like Yusei Kikuchi, record elevated HR/FB rates year over year and consistently have FIPs higher than their xFIPs.
Lance Lynn is not one of those pitchers. In fact, his career FIP (3.79) is actually lower than his career xFIP (3.94) which tells us that his career 11.2% HR/FB rate is better than the league average over the course of his career.
So while that tells us that he hasn’t been homer prone over the course of his career, it doesn’t tell us how things have changed as he gotten older.
And as he’s gotten older, he has given up home runs at a higher rate. You can see that from his Fangraphs page above. The difference with this season is that his home run rate spiked.
Yes we can blame the decline in velocity but I’m not convinced that’s the sole reason. Lynn’s home run rate and HR/FB rate were both higher than the league average in 2022 after he lost a full tick off his fastball velocity (down from 94.0 mph to 93.0 mph according to Fangraphs) but both figures were at least respectable.
It’s reasonable to expect that he might continue to give up home runs at a high rate after losing more velocity in 2023 (-0.4 mph) but that would be underselling what actually happened. So, my point is, that while I do think a loss of velocity has made Lynn more homer prone, I don’t think that’s the sole reason why he gave up home runs at an outlier rate last year.
I think there is some batted ball variance in play here.
To help show this, I’ve compiled a list of all the players with a comparable HR/FB rate since 2010 (min. 150 IP). The list contains 24 names so my apologies for what’s probably the longest table I’ve ever included in an article.
Outlier HR/FB Rates Since 2010 and Their Next Season Results
|Season||Age||Pitcher||HR/FB%||Next Season HR/FB%||Career Average HR/FB%||Change From Yr1 to Yr2|
|Season||Age||Pitcher||HR/FB%||Next Season HR/FB%||Career Average HR/FB%||Change From Yr1 to Yr2|
On this list of 24 players, 21 saw an improved HR/FB rate the following season. The average improvement was a decrease of 5.2% the following year. For all you median lovers out there, that improvement was 4.2%. Still sizeable.
Now let’s assume that Lynn will maintain exactly the same fly ball rate next year and throw exactly the same number of innings. Those are both terrible assumptions but I need a starting point for this next calculation.
That means that Lynn will surrender 231 fly balls next year. Let’s apply the mean HR/FB improvement to last year’s HR/FB%. Now we end up at 13.8%. This doesn’t even include the fact that he’ll be playing in Busch Stadium, which plays as a pitcher’s park.
So if 13.8% of his fly balls are home runs, that gives him 32 home runs and a 1.57 HR/9. That puts his FIP at 4.64, assuming the FIP calcualtor I found online is correct.
Is that great? No. It’s also based on a ton of assumptions. Too many to count in fact. But if Lynn puts up that kind of a FIP next year, then he’s just fine as an innings eating 5th starter.
So my point is that Lynn might not be completely borked. Or he might be. If you think that Lynn’s decline will continue, then I get it. I believe that some kind of normalization will come to Lynn’s home run rate and he’ll end up being a serviceable-ish #5 starter.
Is that belief or hope? It’s hard to separate the two at this point.
We all know how Lance Lynn pitches - he throws a ton of fastballs. Therein lies some of my concern for someone whose fastball velocity has declined from 94 mph in 2021 to 92.9 mph in 2023 to 92.4 mph in 2023.
The interesting thing to me is that while Lynn’s velocity has continued to tick lower, he was actually a solid pitcher in 2022 after losing more than a tick off his fastball. So while velocity decline is always concerning, and inevitable with older pitchers, it’s not outside Lynn’s range of outcomes to get back to something close to his 2022 performance.
What I also find particularly interesting is that Lynn’s cutter hasn’t aged a bit. While his fastball has lost 1.6 mph in the past two seasons and his sinker has lost 1.0 mph, Lynn’s cutter has exactly maintained its 88.7 mph velocity. It even added a bit more ride and cut in 2023.
The rest of his pitches (curveball, slider, changeup) have all felt the effects of age so it’s Lynn’s cutter that really stands out as a pitch that he might want to lean on extensively in 2024.
I want to bring up his four-seam fastball next because there’s a really obvious change he can make to have more success with - stop throwing it inside to right-handed hitters.
Take a look at how the pitch fared against righties in each part of the zone this year:
Sometimes things really are that simple. He fastball no longer has the velocity that it once did so it makes sense that hitters would now be able to catch up to the pitch. He should counter by keeping it away from them.
This isn’t just a one year trend, though, and it started well before Lynn was losing velocity. Now take a look at that same image, except for the past 4 seasons (going back to 2020)
We can talk about how establishing the fastball inside may open up the outer half of the plate but at this point Lynn probably needs to make some adjustments and he shouldn’t be as aggressive with this pitch on the inner half.
The 36-year-old has generally tried to keep the ball on the outer third, as you can see in the image below, but he still has room to grow when it comes to fastball location.
The problem is that with the decline of his fastballs (four-seamer and sinker), there’s now less margin for error. So Lynn doesn’t just need to focus on the outer third of the plate, he pretty much needs to not miss it.
When we look at lefties, what’s clear is that they absolutely murdered his fastball in 2023:
That’s a bit more concerning and while it may look like going inside is the answer, it’s not. In previous seasons, Lynn’s fastball has fared much better on the outer third than the inner third when lefties are in the box. Outside fastballs needs to be his plan against both lefties and righties.
Lynn’s other fastball - his sinker - has the same trend. It’s better when it’s thrown outside but this time it’s also better when it’s kept down.
Once again, though, Lynn is aware of this and tries to keep the pitch down almost exclusively. He’s also more comfortable throwing the pitch to his arm side (which isn’t uncommon for a secondary sinker pitcher) so he works it inside to righties and away to lefties.
And therein lies a limitation of the pitch - it gets crushed when it’s thrown inside to righties.
He needs to keep this pitch in the outer third and he doesn’t have the command to do so. I will mention that pitches oustide and off the plate didn’t fare well but that’s partially because walks are factored into wOBA. It’s also just a one year thing.
So, here’s my point. Sinkers tend to run larger platoon splits than four-seamers yet I would love to see Lynn try to overcome that. His sinker has been crushed by right-handers in the last 2 seasons because it no longer plays well inside while his four-seamer has also been crushed by lefties.
I would be curious to see what would happen if he flipped conventional wisdom and used his sinker against lefties and his four-seamer against righties. That would allow him to focus his sinker almost exclusively on the outer third and he could do the same with his four-seamer against right-handers.
But he can’t just live off the plate with everything. Lynn will have to come inside with something and that’s what his cutter is for. The pitch hasn’t lost any velocity so it seems like the pitch best suited to attack hitters on the hands. He doesn’t need to do it exclusively, but it should be the pitch he uses to counter all of the outer third fastballs.
The issue with that idea is that Lynn throws his cutter almost exclusively to the glove side.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Take a look at his heat map from 2020:
Even in 2022 he was willing to push the pitch to the arm side at times.
So I want to see him get back to doing that. His fastballs have lost too much velocity to get away with being thrown on the inner half. He needs to keep those pitches off the hitters hands and use what’s probably his best pitch to provide some kind of a presence on the inner third of the plate.
There’s reason to believe that such a strategy could help Lynn keep the ball in the park. The righty allowed 26 home runs against his four-seamer and his sinker this past season (21 of which came against his four-seamer). 10 of those homers came on inner third fastballs while another 10 came on middle third fastballs. That 20 of the 26 home runs!
If he can keep the ball off the hitters hands, he’ll be set up for a lot more success.
I’m glossing over the other 3 pitches in Lynn’s arsenal - his curveball, his slider, and his changeup, because they combine for only 20% usage and this article is already long enough. He’s a fastball pitcher and he needs to sort out his fastballs if he’s going to bounce back.
With that said, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Lynn mix in a few more of those breaking balls or changeups if his velocity continues to dip. Those pitches can get whiffs and they also offer a nice change of pace from all his varieties of fastballs.
In fact, it may even be prudent for his breaking ball and offspeed usage to tick up to around 25% next season just to help hitters stay off his fastball a bit more. That’s never been Lynn’s game but an aging pitcher with declining velocity must adapt to continue pitching at a high level.
This isn’t a signing I’m thrilled about. I tend to not like the idea of paying for a back end starter. I’ve heard the whole “there’s no such thing as a bad one year contract” idea thrown around and while technically that’s correct, it misses the bigger picture.
Sure the Cardinals minimized their risk with Lynn. If he blows up then the Cardinals are off the hook after this year. I guess in that sense it’s not bad because there’s really no risk.
The reason I don’t like it is simple. Opportunity cost. I’m assuming there’s more or less a fixed budget for Mo to work with. There may be some wiggle room but he’s not operating on a blank check. That means that the $10 million going to Lance Lynn is $10 million not going to someone else. That’s just how it works.
If my math is correct, that leaves the Cardinals with around $40 million to spend, assuming the payroll that J.P. has calculated (I’m sure he has way more insight on this than I do). I want the Cardinals adding upside to their rotation and now there’s less money to do that.
There’s still a chance that the Cardinals wanted to lock up Lynn early and then chase upside with some of the bigger names on the market. If that’s the plan then I’m cool with it.
But assuming $40 million is left, if the Cardinals spend $25 million on a top of the line free agent starter or assume Tyler Glasnow’s entire contract, they’re left with $15 million for another starter and the bullpen. The Cardinals may not think that’s enough.
So my concern is that this signing may signal the team’s intent to not add upside at the top of the rotation. It’s too early to say for sure, though, which is why I’m withholding judgement for now.
The bigger underlying issue here is with the lack of pitching development that has created a need for the innings that Lance Lynn can provide. Pointing this out now doesn’t solve the issues with the 2024 rotation but it’s worth mentioning anyways.
In an ideal world, the Cardinals would have a prospect or a young player ready to step in and make spot starts if needed. Or even a prospect ready to fit into the #5 spot. Instead Matthew Liberatore, Andre Pallante, Drew Rom, Michael McGreevy, Gordon Graceffo, etc, all have things to work on before they can be trusted to make starts.
The Cardinals needed pitching depth and they got it but going to the free agent market for that depth is a lot more expensive than looking internally. The price of admission is basically what the Cardinals paid for Lynn. You don’t get a starting pitcher for less. The Cardinals may have needed innings but they put themselves in a situation where those innings cost $10 million.
So, while I do think some positive regression will help Lynn and that he can make some tweaks to improve, this is a signing I’m not thrilled about. I don’t hate it either. For now, I need to wait and see the bigger picture.
Thanks for reading, VEB.