It’s no longer possible to overlook the reliable workhorse, who’s become a Cy Young–quality pitcher, and the best starter in the American League
Lance Lynn has been the best pitcher in the American League this year. Evaluations of baseball players almost always say as much about the speaker’s methodology as the players themselves, but insofar as such statements can be true or false, this one is not only provable but ought not to be particularly controversial. Lynn leads all AL starters in WARP and fWAR, and trails only his teammate Mike Minor in bWAR. He leads all qualified AL starters in DRA-, and despite not being a strikeout pitcher by reputation is ninth in the AL in K%. And even though he’s been extremely unlucky, based on batted-ball and sequencing luck, Lynn is ninth in the AL in ERA-. Right now, Lynn has as good a case as anyone for the AL Cy Young.
One thing working against Lynn in the Cy Young race is reputation. He is 32 years old, and nothing in the more than 1,100 MLB innings he’d pitched before this year screamed “Cy Young contender.” He’d never received so much as a down-ballot vote before, and his one All-Star appearance came all the way back in 2012. The Texas Rangers signed him to a three-year, $30 million deal this past offseason, a modest contract even by the extremely conservative standards of modern free agency, to be what he’d always been: a solid, reliable big league starter.
It’s less shocking, however, that I would say that Lance Lynn has been the best pitcher in the American League this year. For the past two years, I’ve been the leading (only?) Lance Lynn superfan in baseball media, wandering around in a perpetual state of bewilderment about why nobody else seemed to realize how good a pitcher the gigantic Indianan was.
Like all great bits, my effusive adoration for Lynn was grounded partially in the truth—two truths, to be exact. The first is that Lynn specifically was underrated. From 2010 to 2018, 24 starting pitchers had at least three seasons with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title and an ERA+ of 120 or better. Ten of them have won at least one Cy Young Award, and another eight have finished third or better. But of those 24 starting pitchers, only Lynn and Hiroki Kuroda have never earned a single Cy Young vote.
Lynn never reached the heights of many of his contemporaries and never flashed ace-quality stuff (at least until now), but he’s been one of the most consistently good pitchers of the 2010s. Since his first full season in 2012, Lynn has failed to throw at least 170 just twice: in 2016, which he missed with Tommy John surgery, and in 2018, when he signed late and struggled out of the gate after having skipped spring training. For most of his career, Lynn has gobbled up innings, and those innings haven’t just been filler—along with the three seasons with an ERA+ of 120 or better, Lynn took a career ERA+ of 109 into this season. That’s not spectacular, but it’s better than the career ERA+ marks of Chris Archer, Charlie Morton, and Jordan Zimmermann, as well as Hall of Famers Jack Morris, Catfish Hunter, and Don Sutton.
The second truth that made me love Lynn is that steady pitchers tend to be underrated, while pitchers who are spectacular even for an instant tend to be overrated. Nothing about Lynn has ever been glamorous. Before this year, Lynn’s career high in K/9 radio was 9.2. His fastball sat at around 93 mph and topped out at 97, which is batting practice speed for a Justin Verlander or Noah Syndergaard. Despite this, he throws mostly fastballs, with few jaw-dropping Kershaw-like breaking pitches to fawn over in GIF form.
At 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, with a round, bearded face, Lynn lacks the superhero physique of a Jake Arrieta or the supermodel looks of a Yu Darvish. Apart from three forgettable months with the Yankees, he’s never played for a big-market team. He’s not notably cool, or notably weird; he’s just been an unfailingly above-average starting pitcher his entire career.
Modern baseball is becoming a game of openers, de facto eight-man rotations, innings limits, and 13-man bullpens. A high-volume, low-variance pitcher like pre-2019 Lynn could be replaced by two or three cheaper, harder-throwing arms who can construct his production in the aggregate. But at the same time, baseball is headed that direction precisely because pitchers as reliable as Lynn are so hard to come by, and so the public overlooked him in favor of more interesting pitchers like Syndergaard and James Paxton, who have combined to qualify for the ERA title just once between them. Or Trevor Bauer, who for all his interest in pitch design and desire to put up huge innings totals has essentially the same career ERA+ as Lynn and has never thrown 200 innings in a season, something Lynn’s done twice.
Those pitchers are all more exciting than Lynn, and at their best are better and flashier, but building a rotation around a pitcher who’s a good bet to miss a third of the season, or lose his command, or both, is a big risk. Maybe I’m too conservative by nature, but I like things I can rely on. I’ve bought the same model of sneakers over and over for 10 years, every car I’ve ever owned has been of Japanese manufacture, and I tend to order the same thing every time I go to a particular restaurant.
In a chaotic time, both in baseball and in society at large, Lance Lynn was my red Pumas, my Subaru, my chicken burrito with rice and salsa verde. Not sexy, but dependable.
But in 2019, Lynn has added a heaping spoonful of sizzle to his stability. He hasn’t overhauled his repertoire entirely, but tweaked it to better fit the challenges specific to pitching in 2019. Lynn is as fastball-reliant as ever—in fact, according to FanGraphs, he’s throwing more fastballs (71.3 percent of his total pitches) than any other starter in baseball. Two discrete fastballs comprise that 71.3 percent: a four-seamer and a sinker. Both pitches ride up and in to right-handed batters, with the four-seamer moving a little more up and the sinker moving a little more in, and at about the same speed, 93 to 95 mph. Lynn has gone back and forth throughout his career on which fastball is his primary heater, and in 2017, his last year with the Cardinals, he threw 42 percent sinkers.
This year, Lynn is throwing just 18.3 percent sinkers, the lowest percentage since his truncated rookie season in 2011. As a result, he’s on track to post the lowest ground ball rate of his career, 42.8 percent. One out of every six or so pitches out of Lynn’s hand is a 90 mph offering with slight glove-side break that Brooks Baseball classifies as a cutter but FanGraphs calls a slider. Along with these fastballs, he’ll throw a handful of changeups a game. These have almost identical break to Lynn’s two-seamer but clock in around 87 mph instead of 93.
Lynn’s four-seamer, sinker, cutter, and to a certain extent his changeup all look similar coming out of his hand but cross the plate with different enough movement that they end up being difficult to square up. It’s a distant cousin of the three-fastball shell game that Hyun-Jin Ryu has used to dominate the National League this season. The Rangers as a team are deempahsizing “establishing the fastball,” which gives the fastball-heavy Lynn a little more latitude to be creative, especially early in the count. By throwing the cutter more, he’s able to keep hitters guessing and dictate the terms of the at-bat.
Lynn has always been this kind of pitcher to some extent, but in 2019 is he’s throwing slightly harder, pounding the zone more than ever, and getting more swings and misses instead of chasing ground balls. So many successful sinkerballers of the early 2010s have learned to their peril that modern swing techniques and the juiced baseball have turned the sinker into an extremely risky pitch. Lynn has adjusted by using his four-seamer and cutter more often and working up in the zone more frequently. Even his two-seamer, rather than a liability, is now just another well-located fastball with lots of movement.
Lance Lynn, Ridiculous 96mph Two Seamer. pic.twitter.com/SoZANf7VUD— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 17, 2019
Lynn is throwing more pitches in the zone (44.4 percent) than he ever has, and getting hitters to swing at a higher percentage of his pitches (48.5 percent) than ever before. Despite this, his contact rate is lower than at any point of his career, both inside and outside the strike zone. Lynn is also striking out more batters (10.3 per nine innings) and walking fewer batters (2.21, almost a full walk per nine innings less than his previous career low) than at any point in his career.
And after an unsettled 2018 in which he never really recovered from his extended offseason, Lynn has resumed his traditional metronomic consistency. Lynn, who’s within 13.1 innings of the MLB lead in innings pitched, has yet to miss a start this year, and he’s currently on a streak of 19 consecutive starts of at least six innings, the second longest in baseball this year behind only Kershaw, who’s on 20 in a row. No other pitcher has strung together more than 15 such starts this season.
It’s a little surprising to see Lynn pitch this well essentially out of nowhere, and unlike other breakout starters like Ryu or Gerrit Cole, he never really hinted at this kind of dominance as a prospect or a young big leaguer. That indicates that he’s due to take a step back sometime in the future. On the other hand, he’s still underperforming his peripherals this year, so it’s equally possible that Lynn is just this good now, and will be for the foreseeable future.
It would be extremely uncharacteristic of Lynn to make his first serious Cy Young challenge without producing some fun fact like his consecutive six-inning starts streak, which points to his exceptional consistency. At his core, Lynn is still the same reliable workhorse he’s always been, but he’s become extremely discomfiting to American League hitters. Now, the quality of Lynn’s pitching matches the quantity that went underappreciated for so long.