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Lance Lynn’s historically lucky 2017

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The soon-to-be free agent is defying what we think we know about pitching peripherals

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at San Francisco Giants Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Lance Lynn wasn’t always like this.

In the early years of Lance Lynn’s career with the St. Louis Cardinals, he struck out plenty of batters, walked an acceptable numbers of batters, and did so while clearing over 175 innings pitched per season. But his earned-run average was noticeably higher than one might expect based on his peripheral statistics. Whether this was due to bad luck or some other factor, Lynn’s results simply did not match what appeared to be strong performances.

And then, starting in 2014, things turned around, and the pitcher with formerly underwhelming results suddenly began to post earned run averages which were superior to his fielding-independent pitching and other similar peripheral statistics.

But in 2017, Lance Lynn has taken the concept of a FIP-beater, a pitcher whose ERA is superior to what his strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed suggest it should be, to extreme levels which most baseball fans have never seen.

In his start last Saturday against the San Francisco Giants, Lance Lynn threw eight shutout innings in which he allowed just one hit. Conventional wisdom suggests that Lynn had been absolutely dominant, but at one point, Lynn had walked four batters while striking out zero. At that point, Lance Lynn’s FIP on the day stood at 5.02, implying a mediocre-to-bad start rather than one in which he had not allowed a run. While Lynn did rehabilitate his FIP a bit with four strikeouts in his final five batters faced, his decent 3.63 FIP was no match for his dominant 0.00 ERA.

This has been the tale of Lance Lynn’s 2017—following what was his 28th start of the season, Lynn’s ERA fell below three, standing at 2.99 on the season, while his FIP is now a much more mediocre 4.71. And while Gio Gonzalez, a Cy Young candidate for the Washington Nationals, and Ervin Santana, a surprising comeback story for the Minnesota Twins, have arguably been bigger national stories for exceeding expectations not only generated by lesser FIPs but also by lesser expectations at this point in their careers, it is Lynn whose -1.73 ERA-FIP differential is the strongest negative differential in baseball among qualified pitchers.

From 1903, the first season of the World Series era, through 2016, the qualified pitcher season with the most strongly negative ERA-FIP differential came from Baltimore Orioles pitcher Sammy Stewart, who threw 112 13 innings in the strike-shortened 1981 season. Stewart struck out as many batters as he walked, 4.57 per nine innings. With an ERA of 2.32 and FIP of 4.11, Stewart managed to simultaneously be the American League’s ERA leader and a below replacement level pitcher by FanGraphs’s more FIP-reliant measurement.

Of course, Stewart gets something of a mental asterisk for having accomplished this feat in a strike-shortened season. In a full season, the record belongs to Chicago Cubs starter Steve Trachsel, an accidental part of Cardinals lore himself.

In 1996, Trachsel pitched 205 innings for the Cubs, a season in which he was an All-Star. Trachsel managed a 3.03 ERA with a 4.81 FIP. Of MLB’s eighty-two qualified pitching seasons of 1996, Trachsel finished seventh by ERA and 59th by FIP.

On the current ERA-FIP list, measuring every qualified season in Major League Baseball history, Lance Lynn ranks third.

Even if Lynn were to immediately start regressing to the mean, with his ERA and FIP suddenly matching and with Lynn pitching innings at the same rate at which he accumulated them so far in the season (the latter might be a bit of a reach, as the former likely means he would allow more runs and thus would likely be given a shorter leash for going relatively deep into games), he would still wind up with a -1.50 differential. Lynn would still be tied for 14th on the all-time list of qualified pitcher disparity. Only four pitchers this century have a greater ERA-leaning disparity: 2003 Ryan Franklin, 2002 Elmer Dessens, 2004 Al Leiter, and 2014 Doug Fister.

A glimpse at Lance Lynn’s company atop the ERA-FIP leaderboard (or the bottom of it, depending on your perspective) is a window into the type of pitcher Lynn could be going forward, a particularly prescient question given the Cardinal’s impending free agency.

The conventional wisdom surrounding FIP-beaters is that most of them are due for regression, that a low ERA matched with a much higher FIP is a reflection on a pitcher’s batted-ball luck and that FIP is a more reliable measure of a pitcher’s true talent. But, particularly since 2002, we have access to more nuanced statistics than FIP, which only measures strikeouts, walks, home runs allowed, and innings. These statistics, such as SIERA (skill-interactive earned run average) and DRA (deserved run average, measured by Baseball Prospectus), are built upon the fundamental principle of FIP, that much of a pitcher’s ERA is dependent on luck, but consider quality of contact surrendered by a pitcher and adjust for factors such as quality of competition and ballpark.

The greatest differential of a (completed) season in the 21st century belonged to Ryan Franklin, whose ERA was 3.57, solidly above-average for the era, but whose peripherals were decidedly worse—a 5.17 FIP, 5.19 xFIP, 5.19 SIERA, and 5.10 DRA were not as bad in 2003 as they might sound, but they were certainly not good. Franklin spent the next two seasons still starting for the Seattle Mariners, as he had in 2003, but his ERA started to balloon, 4.90 in 2004 and 5.10 in 2005. Ryan Franklin then converted to a reliever, where had had more favorable results, his unceremonious 2011 finale with the Cardinals notwithstanding.

The remainder of the differential leaderboard tells a similar story. Although Elmer Dessens stuck in MLB for another eight seasons following his 2002 results peak, he only had one more season as a full-time starter, in which his ERA jumped from 3.03 to 5.07. Al Leither pitched one more season, a disastrous 2005 in which he posted a 6.13 ERA, a 5.15 FIP (ironically, the FIP wasn’t that much worse than his 4.76 mark in 2004). 2014 Doug Fister managed a 2.41 ERA and 3.93 FIP, and while his FIP has gone up since that season, his ERA has more or less caught up with him, making him an utterly replaceable mid-fours ERA guy who has been on three teams in three seasons rather than the Cy Young candidate his 2014 ERA made him out to be.

A key consideration for Lance Lynn is that this is his first season back from Tommy John surgery. It is possible that part of his much rougher defense-independent statistics could be mitigated in 2018 just as part of the healing process. But even if his FIP improves, it is likely that his ERA will regress to his FIP. If Lynn turns out, in his thirties and post-Tommy John, to be, say, a 3.80-ish FIP pitcher and his ERA matches that, he’s still a worthwhile asset (granted, this is essentially what the Cardinals just gave away in Mike Leake).

But when free agency hits this off-season, is Lynn going to expect to be paid like Mike Leake, or is he going to expect to be paid like the sub-3 ERA pitcher he has been in 2017 thanks to historic luck? Of course, teams other than the Cardinals also have access to peripheral statistics, but all Lynn needs is one team out of thirty to buy him as truly as good as his results this season for him to receive a far higher payday than the past history of FIP-beaters suggests he would deserve.