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The legacy of Lance Lynn

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For now, Lance Lynn is a Cardinal. Let’s take a moment to appreciate his contributions to the organization.

Chicago Cubs v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The greatest St. Louis Cardinals pitcher of my lifetime, and your lifetime if you too were born after Bob Gibson’s playing career, is Adam Wainwright. #2 on the list, as measured by either Baseball Reference or FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, is Chris Carpenter, whose Cardinals career overlapped significantly with Wainwright’s and who produced similar results, but in over 500 fewer innings. But neither is my favorite Cardinals pitcher. Matt Morris, #3 by bWAR and fWAR in my lifetime, helped transition me from watching a mediocre team to watching a dominant team, but he isn’t my favorite, either.

My favorite Cardinals pitcher is Lance Lynn.

Wainwright and Carpenter, without question, had higher peaks. Although Lynn ranks well by Wins Above Replacement—fourth in bWAR over the last 30 years—twelve Cardinals pitchers in that time have had seasons which surpassed Lynn’s peak of 3.7 bWAR. On the surface, Lance Lynn has a boring Cardinals legacy—not a bad one by any means, but a somewhat unspectacular one. But during his seven seasons in St. Louis, Lance Lynn ran a fascinating spectrum of roles and levels of quality, acting at times in the background and at times at the forefront of budding Cardinals history.

Although a first-round pick in 2008, albeit in the supplemental phase of it, Lance Lynn wasn’t a super-prospect. He was nowhere to be found in Derrick Goold’s 2009 prospects analysis, and although he jumped into the team prospect list for 2010, he dropped in 2011 and didn’t even crack Goold’s projected 2014 rotation. Lynn was the kind of player who was going to eventually make it to St. Louis, but it was an open question to wonder how long he was going to stay.

Lance Lynn made his MLB debut on June 2, 2011, after starter Kyle McClellan went to the 15-day Disabled List. It came with expectations which were moderate. Against the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants, he allowed five runs in 5 1/3 innings. A week later, against a poor but not quite bottomed-out Houston Astros, Lynn allowed one run in five innings. And then he went back to Memphis. Lynn was fine, but he wasn’t such a pivotal prospect that his demotion caused much of a stir.

Fifteen days after his start in Houston, Lynn was back in the Majors as a reliever. From June 24 through August 9, working exclusively out of the bullpen, Lynn made sixteen appearances, and by any standard, he was terrific. In relief, Lynn logged a 2.22 earned-run average, a 2.45 fielding-independent ERA, and a 2.21 xFIP. He struck out 34% of batters he faced and, while he may not have found a place in a rotation which now included Edwin Jackson, Lynn was a dynamic reliever who would assuredly have been pivotal down the stretch of the regular season if not for a left oblique injury which hampered him for two months.

Lynn cracked the 2011 NLCS roster, making five appearances and allowing zero runs. In the World Series, Lynn had three scoreless outings and a fourth in which he allowed one run, but also logged 2 13 innings and earned the win in The One Where Albert Pujols Hit Three Home Runs. And yet it was Lynn’s one bad outing, one in which he allowed back-to-back home runs to Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz, which draws the most attention of his 2011 games (the ones where he actively pitched, at least)—it doesn’t help when it strikes in the most famous Cardinals game of its generation.

With Chris Carpenter beginning 2012 on the Disabled List, Lance Lynn opened the year in the rotation, and he got off to the races. Before the All-Star break, Lynn made seventeen starts. His ERA and FIP were both better than average, and while his win total (11) may not have been an accurate reflection of his performance, few would argue that Lynn had not been a productive starter, even if he did not deserve the All-Star Game nod he was given (somewhat ironically, two other Cardinals who had notably poor performances alongside Lynn in Game 6 joined him on the NL team—Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal).

And then, for the next month, Lynn’s ERA went south (north? The number increased—whichever is the bad sounding one). In his next eight starts, Lynn posted an ERA of 5.23. By FIP, he wasn’t exactly good, but his numbers were quite a bit less disastrous—a FIP of 4.06 is probably not poor enough to get an All-Star removed from the rotation if that’s his ERA, but that’s what happened with Lynn.

He was replaced by Joe Kelly, who was in many ways the polar opposite of Lynn. In 2012 and especially in 2013, Lance Lynn had noticeably better peripheral statistics than his earned run results suggested. Joe Kelly was the opposite—his ERA in 2012 was 0.47 runs lower than his FIP, and in 2013, in 124 innings, the difference was an astounding 1.32 runs. Off the field, each had a distinct personality, but while Lance Lynn’s dry sarcasm took time for some fans to embrace, Joe Kelly’s bubbly goofiness made him an instant fan favorite.

Because Shelby Miller was omitted from the 2013 postseason rotation altogether, both Lynn and Kelly got their chances to start playoff games. And while each had mixed results, because Jaime Garcia began the season on the DL, the duo were easily assured of spots on the 2014 Opening Day roster as starting pitchers.

According to FanGraphs WAR, Lance Lynn was worse in 2014 than he was in 2013, but by most measures, he was essentially the same pitcher. He threw two more innings and while his strikeout rate did go down a hair, so did his walk rate—his FIP and xFIP went from 3.28 and 3.66 to 3.35 and 3.81, which is so incrementally worse that you wouldn’t notice just by watching the games. You also probably didn’t notice because Lynn gave up 1.23 fewer runs per nine innings in 2014 than 2013.

2014 was the season where public perception of Lynn, derided for his relatively high ERAs, turned on its head. In 2015, the trend continued, and Lynn outperformed his FIP by 0.41 runs. Lynn missed 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but 2017 has been arguably his luckiest season yet (Craig Edwards noted this extensively on Tuesday)—Lynn’s ERA is rather good (3.21) but his FIP (4.83) and xFIP (4.43) are easily career worsts. His SIERA, a fielding-independent statistic which gives credit to pitchers who surrender weak contact and which often offers some explanation for pitchers with relatively low ERAs who are otherwise dismissed as lucky, is only a hair better than his xFIP, at 4.38. After existing as a FIP monster, Lynn’s career ERA is now lower than his career FIP.

Lance Lynn is my favorite Cardinals pitcher because he existed in every form. He was a touted prospect and a non-prospect. He was a successful reliever who overcame being on the mound for some devastating moments. He was used as a last resort by Tony LaRussa, then demoted to the bullpen by Mike Matheny, a manager who nevertheless liked Lynn enough to keep him around long enough that only Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright have been on the Cardinals longer. He went from unlucky and frequently overlooked by Cardinals fans to a beloved member of the team. All it took was time.

As of the time I wrote this sentence, Lance Lynn is still a Cardinal. He may not be a Cardinal by the end of the day, by the end of Monday, or following the 2017 season (Ken Rosenthal has reported that Lynn may not even receive a qualifying offer from the Cardinals, implying that the Cardinals have very little interest in retaining him given their depth of young starting pitchers). But no matter what happens with Lance Lynn, his legacy as a valued part of an extraordinarily successful era of Cardinals history remains solidly intact.