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Lance Lynn: the development of the Cardinals workhorse

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Lance Lynn
Lance Lynn
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The game did not result in a Cardinal victory, but St. Louis right-hander Lance Lynn pitched very well against the Chicago Cubs in his first outing this year: nine strikeouts, two hits, one walk, one earned run and one unearned run in a contest that the Redbirds eventually lost 2-0.

Lynn was somewhat up-and-down as a young prospect but since reaching the major leagues he has been a consistent success.

Lance Lynn pitched college baseball at the University of Mississippi. He had command issues as a freshman in 2006 and posted a 4.96 ERA with an unattractive 76/51 K/BB, but he held his rotation spot all spring and pitched 85 innings. He improved significantly as a sophomore (2.85 ERA in 123 innings, 146/44 K/BB) and looked like a first round pick heading into the '08 draft season.

His junior season was deceptive: his ERA spiked again to 4.52 in 90 innings, but both his strikeout and walk rates improved with a 110/31 K/BB. He fell out of straight first-round consideration but was still drafted early, by the Cardinals in the supplemental round, 39th overall.

He pitched well in the New York-Penn League (22/4 K/BB in 19 innings, 0.96 ERA). Here is the Baseball Prospect Book commentary for Lynn entering 2009, based on reports from college and the NY-P:

Although physically large, his velocity is just average in the 88-92 MPH range. He also has a good slider, and his curveball and changeup have their moments. While none of Lynn’s pitches are first-rate, he mixes them well, throws strikes, and has a good feel for his craft. Scouts anticipate he can move through the system quickly, projecting him as an inning-eating, number four starter type once he reaches the majors. His pro debut was successful, and he could begin 2009 as high as Double-A. Grade C+.

Lynn opened '09 with 16 strong innings in the High-A Florida State League (2.30 ERA, 17/3 K/BB), earning a rapid promotion to Double-A Springfield in the Texas League. He adapted quickly, going 11-4, 2.92 with a 98/51 K/BB in 127 innings, then finished the season with an excellent single start for Triple-A Memphis.

The scouting report didn't change much although his grade moved up a notch due to a full year of objective evidence:

His main pitch is a hard sinker at 89-92 MPH; not an overpowering pitch, but an effective one when his command is working. He also uses a slider, curveball, and changeup, all of them solid offerings. While none of his pitches are spectacular, his feel for pitching is very good and hitters are never exactly sure what’s coming. Statistically, his K/BB ratio wasn’t terrific in the Texas League. He’s not a strikeout machine, but his overall profile was just fine. I don’t see him as a future ace, but if he avoids health problems Lynn can be a number three/four inning-eater type, and that has considerable value. Grade B-.

Lynn moved up to Memphis full-time in 2010 and was rumored to be a good candidate for a call-up. He ate tons of innings that year but had trouble with home runs (21) resulting in a 4.77 ERA in 164 innings.

Lance Lynn didn’t have a great year in 2010, but it wasn’t a disaster. He ate a ton of innings in Triple-A and won 13 games, but he wasn’t dominant either, struggling with his command within the strike zone at times and showing much greater vulnerability to home runs than in years past. His fastball is average at 88-92 MPH. His curveball, slider, and changeup all have their moments, but none of them are certain out-pitches. He had his share of strong games, including a pair of 11-strikeout victories in the second half of the season. I haven’t give up on Lynn as a possible number three or four starter, and even some marginal improvement with his command could take him a long way. Watch for any improvement in his K/BB ratio. Grade C+

2011 was better: 3.84 ERA in 75 Memphis innings, 64/25 K/BB. Promoted to the majors, he was an immediate success in St. Louis, making two starts but 16 relief appearances with a 3.12 ERA and a 40/11 K/BB.

Interestingly, the scouting reports began to change. His command was better, but he was throwing harder, too. His velocity was up even before he was promoted, up past 95 MPH for Memphis. Used in the Cardinals bullpen this spike was even more prominent. There was some talk that he could wind up as the closer eventually.

Lance Lynn’s prospect status entering 2011 was a little unclear due to an erratic Triple-A campaign in ’10. Showing better command last year, he performed well in his return concert at Memphis, then looked excellent after being promoted to St. Louis. He’s picked up velocity on his fastball, hitting 96-97 MPH at times and holding his peak velocity more readily when used in relief. He relies on a curveball as his secondary pitch coming out of the bullpen, and he still has a slider and changeup he can break out when necessary. Lynn has what it takes to be a solid number three starter, but he could also be a dominant reliever and could get a chance to close eventually. I like him. Grade B.

As you know, the relief thing didn't happen: he moved into a starting role in 2012 and quickly established himself, going 18-7, 3.78 with a 180/64 K/BB in 176 innings for a 2.8 fWAR. He pushed past 200 innings in 2013 (15-10, 3.97, 3.7 fWAR) then followed up with a very similar 2014 (15-10 again, 2.74 ERA, but 3.35 FIP, 3.4 fWAR).

Lance Lynn

Lance Lynn, photo by Jeff Curry, USA Today

He throws harder now than he did earlier in his career, his fastball hitting 96 MPH at times and averaging 92. In college and the minors he was more at 89-92 averaging 90. That extra MPH can make a difference, adding velocity separation with his secondary pitches. Platoon issues were a factor as well; he had trouble with lefties in the past, but Kevin Ruprecht at Beyond the Boxscore explored Lynn's improvement against lefties last year, tracing it to a more consistent release point on his sinker.

Lynn has also done a remarkably good job staying healthy. His path to get there wasn't completely straight due to the 2011 detour at Memphis, but Lynn ultimately lived up to the reports and became a workhorse starter.

Will he hold up to this sort of workload? His Sim Score comparables through age 27 are intriguing: Rick Rhoden, Ian Kennedy, Rich Harden, Bob Forsch, Mike Boddicker, Adam Wainwright, Jordan Zimmerman, Gaylord Perry, Don Newcombe. Kennedy, Wainwright, and Zimmerman are contemporaries which tells us little.

Of the historicals, Rhoden remained a full-time starter through age 35 with 2394 innings to his credit. Harden's arm fell off when he was 28, resulting in just 928 innings. Forsch was a full-time starter through age 37 and finished with 2795 innings. Boddicker remained effective through age 33 and finished with 2124 innings.

Perry started regularly through age 44, winning 314 games in 5350 innings, though of course he had some "unnatural" help. Newcombe started regularly through age 33 and threw 2155 innings.

Those potential parallels plot out quite nicely: you have the extreme "arm exploded" negative result in Harden and the extreme "I was cheating" positive result in Perry, with four other pitchers in the middle throwing at least 2000 innings and lasting as effective arms through age 33 or beyond.

Lynn is signed thru 2017 and age 30. If the history of similar pitchers is any sort of guide, it is a decent bet that he'll remain effective through the life of the contract.