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How the fastball powers Lance Lynn

The non-waiver trade deadline has passed, and Lance Lynn is still a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. Since 2012, Lynn has proven to be a valuable pitcher, but as a rental, his trade value was limited. Sure, Yu Darvish — also a rental — yielded a potentially underrated return for the Rangers, but he’s easily a level above Lynn, performance wise. The other big name starter dealt — Sonny Gray — possesses two years of control beyond 2017, and even he couldn’t net the Athletics any of the Yankees’ most-coveted prospects. Thus, I am thankful the Cardinals didn’t settle when choosing whether or not to deal Lynn at the deadline. Now, do I believe the 2017 Cardinals have a chance to catch the Cubs? No, but I’d rather watch Lynn in the rotation through 2017, extend the qualifying offer (regardless of Ken Rosenthal’s report), and see what happens (even with the new CBA).

Frankly, instead of dwelling on an inactive trade deadline, let’s understand and appreciate the 6’5″ starting pitcher. Because, after all, this may be his last nine or ten starts wearing the Birds on the Bat. So, what makes Lynn — primarily a fastball pitcher (77.74% this season) — successful? Sure, his current FIP (4.82) doesn’t necessarily project well, as he is allowing home runs at a career-high rate (15.6%). But his career ERA (3.34) outperforms his FIP (3.56), and you’d logically expect his HR/FB% to eventually regress.

Unlike specialty relievers, starters must face batters on both sides of the plate, and hopefully multiple times through the order. With this in mind, it would be ideal for a starter to be effective versus both righties and lefties, regardless of their personal handedness. Well, 918 innings into his MLB career, Lynn has been below average versus lefties. As you’d expect, he has stifled righties to the tune of a .227/.284/.338 slash line (.275 wOBA). While lefties, on the other hand, have been more successful, relatively speaking, slashing .254/.354/.423 (.341). For perspective, the league-average slash line for RHPs versus LHBs (since 2012) is .258/.329/.416 (.324).

Honestly, Lynn’s struggles versus lefties may be a bit overblown as his performance, using wOBA, has been only ~6% below the league-average right-hander. Yet, where Lynn truly thrives is versus righties, and again, using wOBA, he’s been ~10% better than league-average. Three months ago, when I was still writing for Viva El Birdos, I discussed Lynn’s increased cutter usage and subsequent success during the first months of the 2017 season. It’s remains a highly effective pitch for him, but let’s pivot by taking a closer look at his fastballs — Lynn’s specialty.

On Twitter (@stlCupofJoe), I get asked a lot of St. Louis Cardinals-based questions. One question that pops up most frequently is, “How can Lynn be successful in the majors when he only throws fastballs?” or some variety of that. Well, it’s actually much simpler than you may realize. Given Lynn’s ability to locate his fastball on all four corners, utilizing slightly different arm slots, he is able to turn one pitch into multiple weapons. Of course, Lynn’s “fastball” is made up of a fourseamer (43.05%) and a sinker (34.66%) — both possessing a similar velocity, but different flight paths — the sinker displays more horizontal movement.

Lance Lynn attacking the inside corner

The first trail — a 93.2 MPH sinker — may appear as if it falls into the low-and-in quadrant. However, the strike zone is determined by when the pitch crosses home plate. When this sinker crossed home plate, the pitch was actually up and in to Ian Desmond. After pummeling the righty with a down-and-in, 92.8 MPH sinker on the pitch prior, elevating an even faster pitch understandably led to a swing in miss.

The second trail — a 93.8 MPH sinker — landed down, in, and out of the strike zone. A sinker located this well, despite the fact that it came against the opposing pitcher, is virtually unhittable. The sinker doesn’t even serve as a swing and miss pitch for Lynn, but when it’s located this perfectly, whiffs will undoubtedly follow, even against non-pitchers.

Lance Lynn attacking the outside corner

While these two pitches appear just off the outside corner — because of the trails extending to Molina’s mitt — remember, the strike zone is determined by when the pitch crosses home plate. This BrooksBaseball.net pitch chart confirms that both did land in the strike zone, though very different quadrants:

To put Nolan Arenado in an 0-2 hole, Lynn utilized nearly identical release points, and the same pitch (92.4 and 92.6 MPH fourseamers), while targeting two different quadrants. Arenado — a notorious fourseamer masher — simply could not pull the trigger on either pitch and eventually struck out. For the record, when Lynn starts 0-2, batters are able to muster only a .197 wOBA.

Bottom line

We now have an answer to the question of how Lynn can be successful when he primarily throws fastballs. Of course, we must not forget about his cutter, as it’s been quite useful this season. But, Lynn’s money pitch(es) will always be his fastball(s). Though they may be discussed under the umbrella of one pitch — the fastball (I think Fox Sports Midwest fails to differentiate between then two) — we know it’s much more complicated than that. A fourseamer on the upper outside corner is different from a fourseamer on the lower outside corner, and it’s unbelievably different from a sinker located on the lower inside corner. Thus, when appreciating Lance Lynn going forward, know that though his repertoire may seem elementary, it is actually quite complex. Frankly, Lynn is one of the most fascinating pitchers to watch, in my opinion.

As always, credit to @cardinalsgifs and BrooksBaseball.net for their respective contributions to this post.

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