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Lance Lynn

In Baseball on May 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm

One month into the season, St. Louis’s Lance Lynn is the best pitcher in the National League.

Lance Lynn pitched arguably the worst start of his brief career May 7. He labored through five innings, gave up three hits, walked four, and struck out seven. It was an unremarkable outing for the rookie, but it showed just how impressive his season has been. Since his first start April 8 at Milwaukee, Lynn has thrown 38.2 innings, posted a 1.40 ERA, and struck out 37 batters. His ERA is the second-best in all of baseball, and his strikeout total puts him in the top 20. He’s averaging 8.6 K/9 and is tallying more than three times as many strikeouts as walks. He’s received a decision in each one of his outings — all wins. He’s given up the fewest earned runs — six — in all of baseball. That’s outstanding for any pitcher, regardless of age.

His advanced metrics are even more impressive. Through six starts, Lynn has posted a 261 ERA+.[1] That’s completely unsustainable, but it shows how good Lynn has been so far. His 1.21 WPA is the best in the National League and the sixth-best in baseball.[2] His FIP is 3.15, 10th-best in the National League and 16th-best in baseball.[3] In what appears to be a second “Year of the Pitcher,” Lynn is quietly putting together an outstanding rookie season.

What accounts for Lynn’s remarkable start? At least part of his success is due to his [you need an adjective here] repertoire. Lynn throws five pitches: a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a cutter, a curveball and a changeup. But the real story is his fastball. Lynn’s four-seamer sits in the low 90s — his 2012 average is 92.4 mph — but can reach up to 95 mph. Not only does he throw 90+ mph heat, but he throws it often. Through six starts, 68.3 percent of Lynn’s pitches have been four-seam fastballs. He’ll throw off a batter’s timing with a curve (20.5 percent of his pitch totals), but his go-to pitch has been the four-seamer.

Lynn has kept opposing hitters off balance. He’s gotten ahead of hitters, throwing 63 percent of his first pitches for strikes. Twenty-nine percent of his strikes have been called strikes, and 18 percent have been swinging strikes. He strikes out nearly nine batters per nine innings, and he’s whiffed 26.1 percent of all batters that he’s faced. And when opposing batters aren’t striking out, they’re hitting ground balls. Lynn’s ground ball percentage is 52.1, compared to 30.9 percent for fly balls. For perspective, the major league average for ground balls is 45.4 percent

Lynn has also had a little bit of luck. While he’s held opposing batters to a staggering .168 batting average, he’s benefitted from an extremely low .209 BABIP.[4] When hitters do make contact, those balls have ended up in St. Louis’s glove a disproportionate number of times. Additionally, Lynn has been helped by a low home run rate. So far, Lynn has averaged .7 HR/9, and only 10.3 percent of his fly balls have turned into home runs. Both statistics will probably change as his BABIP regresses to the mean and the weather begins to heat up in St. Louis.

We’re 30 games into the 2012 baseball season. With a little less than one-fifth of the season completed, we’re leaving the period of “small sample sizes” and entering the real grind of the summer. Lance Lynn has been outstanding thus far. Will he be able to maintain his impressive pace? We’ll have to wait and see. But when it’s May 9, the Baltimore Orioles are in first place, the Boston Red Sox are last, and Albert Pujols has one home run, anything is possible.

[1] ERA+ normalizes a pitcher’s earned run average by taking into account ballparks and the league average ERA.

[2] Win Probability Added measures an individual player’s contribution to the outcome of a single game given a hypothetically average team.

[3] Fielding Independent Pitching quantifies a pitcher’s effectiveness based on plays solely within the control of the pitcher: (HR+BB-K)/IP.

[4] Batting Average on Balls In Play measures how many batted balls against a pitcher turn into hits.


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