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Lance Lynn's regression candidacy

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Lance Lynn has been solid and steady for the Cardinals the past few seasons, but whether or not his performance will get better or worse is up for debate.

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Being very good but not great, sturdy when others are fragile, and dependable when others are new or old is a good recipe to be overlooked and underappreciated. Lance Lynn is starting the second game of the season for the Cardinals. He signed a three-year contract extension for $21 million. I wrote in the playoffs that Lance Lynn is no longer unappreciated. As for being overlooked, it is possible he is still being taken for granted, but that likely has more to do with fans spending time an energy worrying about the rest of the rotation rather than Lynn being taken for granted. In January I said the Cardinals were counting on Lynn, and they are, but there are still some questions as to Lynn's performance as we head into the season.

Over at the Post-Dispatch, Bernie Miklasz did previews for almost, if not, all of the Cardinals expected key contributors. His piece on Lance Lynn focused on a potential regression. I will admit to cringing a little when I read the title of the article because in my head, I did not think of Lynn as a candidate for regression at all given Lynn's steady performance over the past three years. However, Bernie did a good job laying out the reasons for a potential regression.

Well, Steamer forecasts a slight regression for Lynn. Keeping in mind that his fielding-independent ERA was 3.32 over the 2012-2013 seasons, Steamer has the FIP jumping to 3.69 this season. (And with a 12-10 record and fewer innings pitched.) Steamer also forecasts an improved strikeout-walk ratio for Lynn, and an even lower batting average (.286) on balls in play. But Steamer also projects a drop in WAR to 2.3 So why would there be a regression? Two factors in the Steamer forecast: a lower runners-stranded rate and an increased home-run rate.

Bernie is correct about some projections predicting a regression for Lance Lynn, but I do not buy into those projections regressing the home run rate so much. Steamer does not believe that Lance Lynn's HR/9 from the past two seasons is sustainable. In 2013 and 2014, Lynn's HR/9 rate was 0.6. League average is closer to 0.9 and Lynn's career average is just under 0.7 so Steamer expects the home run rate to regress to league average. As home runs is one of the main components in FIP, regressing home runs to league average jumps Lynn's FIP, so expectations are down according to Steamer. Bernie mentioned ZiPS , which expects more of the same from Lynn and PECOTA, which also expects Lynn to fare worse in 2015. Of course looking back at 2014 projections for Lynn, PECOTA and Steamer were down on Lynn then and he had a great year.

When I think of regression, sustainability comes to mind. Can the player keep up what he has been doing. Striking out 14 hitters in a game is fantastic, but that performance is not sustainable. We cannot expect it to happen every game. The pitcher is most likely to regress back to career or league averages for strikeouts over the course of the next few games. When a performance is not likely to be repeated, it is not sustainable, and is then a candidate for regression.

Here are Lynn's statistics in a variety of categories from 2012-2013 and then last season.

Lance Lynn IP/season ERA FIP K% BB% BABIP HR/9 fWAR/season
2012-2013 189 3.88 3.38 23.6 8.8 0.317 0.71 3.3
2014 203.2 2.74 3.35 20.9 8.3 0.290 0.57 3.4

Lynn was actually a big candidate for regression last season. The debate prior to last season was not old school stats versus new school. It was old school versus old school. Those who lauded wins and innings said Lynn was great, while those who looked at ERA said he was not. All the while, those with statistical leanings said why don't we push wins and ERA to the side and take a look at FIP. Lynn's FIP was much better than his ERA in 2012 and 2013. That made him a regression candidate in 2014. Ben called for a breakout from Lynn before the season started.

So what are we looking for in 2015? More of the same. Here are Lynn's career stats and 2014.

Lance Lynn IP/season ERA FIP K% BB% BABIP HR/9 fWAR/season
2012-2014 194 3.48 3.37 22.7 8.6 0.307 0.67 3.3
2014 203.2 2.74 3.35 20.9 8.3 0.290 0.57 3.4

Everything lines up pretty well now. The expected regression in ERA before last season swung way over to the other side, giving up fewer runs than we would have expected. It is pretty fair to look at those career numbers and expect exactly what he has been doing for three years now. His strikeout numbers went slightly down last season, but so did his home runs. Either this is part of a sustainable performance or those numbers could both move closer to his career numbers this season. Either way, the performance will be the same. Lynn's BABIP took a dip last season, and that came with a very low ERA. We cannot reasonably expect that the BABIP will stay low and the ERA will continue to stay down with it, but one thing that changed from 2012-2013 to 2014 for the Cardinals was a much improved defense.

If Lynn's BABIP is below .300 and his ERA stay below three, a lot of credit should go to the Cardinals defense. Previous year FIP is more predictive than ERA. The very low ERA does make Lynn a candidate for regression in ERA, but that ERA moving to the 3.30-3.40 range still makes him a very good pitcher and does not mean that our perception of how good he chould change. Lynn remains a very good pitcher for the Cardinals, and there is no reason to think that his solid performance will not continue into 2015.