When Lance Lynn, one of the better pitchers of the 2010s, went into mid-March before signing a one-year, $12 million contract, there was plenty of grumbling. Some grumbled that Lynn was a necessary piece for the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals rotation and that Some Guy Named Miles Mikolas wasn’t a legitimate replacement except to an ownership group focused mostly on preserving DeWallet. A more nuanced group, which I thought had a point, grumbled that even if Lynn wasn’t a substantial upgrade over in-house options, more pitching depth is always preferable to less, and with the exception of his Tommy John recovery season of 2016, Lynn had been pretty dependable as far as Major League starters go. I grumbled that Lynn was being unfairly punished by the qualifying offer system, a point I maintain but which is largely unrelated to this particular conversation.
Today, for the first time, Lance Lynn, now a member of the Minnesota Twins, will face off against the team which drafted, developed, and hosted the first seven years of his career. And while Lynn was solid middle-of-the-rotation depth as a Cardinal, his Twins career has been off, to put it generously, to a rocky start.
In six seasons in St. Louis, Lynn never had an ERA in the fours. I suppose technically he still hasn’t, as Lynn enters tonight’s game with a 7.34 ERA. As was the case in his early years as a starter, Lynn has a higher ERA than FIP, often a sign that a pitcher is getting unlucky, but even Lynn’s FIP of 5.50 isn’t much to celebrate.
Lynn’s decline has been characterized by his shockingly high walk rate of 6.55 walls per nine innings. In 2017, Lynn walked a career-high 10.1% of batters, and in 2018, the problem has gotten even worse, with the veteran righty walking 15.2% of his opponents.
By SIERA, a batted-ball related metric similar in design to Fielding Independent Pitching but with extra layers to adjust for the quality of contact that pitchers allow, Lynn is better than he is by ERA or FIP. He isn’t good, but he’s better. Entering today’s game, Lance Lynn’s SIERA (which, like FIP, is scaled to ERA) stands at 5.03. His 2017 SIERA, in a season in which his 3.43 ERA was 23% better than league average and kept Lynn on the radar enough to command a qualifying offer from the Cardinals, was 4.85.
In 2017, Lynn was the biggest ERA overachiever in baseball relative to his FIP, with his ERA 1.39 runs lower than his FIP. To be clear, FIP is not an especially nuanced stat, but it is decent shorthand for measuring the factors a pitcher can reasonably control (home runs allowed, walks, and strikeouts) and it does push luck to the side. A statistic like SIERA can benefit pitchers who aren’t necessarily strikeout behemoths but are able to keep hitters to more ground balls and fewer line drives. But Lynn was even worse by SIERA.
Early returns suggest that the Cardinals were correct to be skeptical of Lynn going forward.
But crediting a team for not spending money is dangerous territory in and of itself–no right-minded fan cares about the profits of his or her favorite team to even a thousandth of the degree that he or she cares about the team putting the best possible team on the field. $12 million spent on Lance Lynn is $12 million spent on the on-field product; if the alternative is not spending it, that is going to be worse. Usually.
In the case of Lance Lynn, the alternative to signing him is now known–signing Greg Holland. The Holland signing, to this point, does not exactly look like a great signing, but in the context of when he was signed, it can be defended in the sense that, since it happened on Opening Day, there were no longer alternatives. Perhaps in the context of the entire offseason it was a mistake, but at the moment, the question is “Would you rather have Greg Holland or an otherwise minor league reliever (and a draft pick)?”
But for much of the off-season, the Cardinals could have signed either. While Greg Holland has been far better (less bad) than Lynn by ERA, at 4.76, his peripherals have been even worse–his 5.79 FIP and 6.82 xFIP (FIP adjusted for a league-average home run to fly ball rate) have been outright abysmal. His SIERA is 6.62–also extremely bad.
By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, Lynn has been less bad than Holland, though both have been below Replacement Level. The major difference, however, between a starting pitcher and a reliever is that managers can manipulate a reliever’s usage to limit his damage, whereas a starter cannot be hidden short of demoting him to the bullpen (and a starting pitcher fresh off an eight-figure annual contract is not easily demoted to the bullpen, no matter how poorly he is pitching).
The Twins have less rotation depth than the Cardinals, which can be used as an argument for why Lynn remains in the rotation, but they also don’t have any sense of loyalty to him. Lance Lynn may not quite be Adam Wainwright, who has been given multiple extended outings despite his struggles, but Lance Lynn to the Cardinals would probably be closer to Adam Wainwright in terms of inherent sentimentality from manager Mike Matheny than what Lynn is to the Twins.
Since his infamous three-run blown save against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 27 (a truly glorious day to launch a website called St. Louis Bullpen), Greg Holland has pitched relatively sporadically, making just five appearances, none of which came in save situations (hardly a perfect proxy for being trusted as a reliever, but one which suggests the level of trust that Mike Matheny has in him). There is certainly a case to be made that Mike Matheny puts way too much stock in “his guys”, but Greg Holland isn’t one of those guys. He was signed as “a proven closer”, a thing to which, despite his many faults, Mike Matheny doesn’t seem to particularly subscribe. Lance Lynn was one of his guys, second (and not by that much) to Wainwright in terms of innings and run prevention.
Assuming Lynn makes the initial rotation, the likely odd-man out would be Miles Mikolas (Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha, when healthy, are locks; Luke Weaver could be pushed aside, but he started a game in 2018 before Mikolas). Miles Mikolas’s relevant 2018 pitching stats: a 2.51 ERA, a 3.57 FIP, a 3.10 xFIP, and a 3.34 SIERA. Lynn’s early results have been genuinely worrisome; Mikolas’s have inspired confidence that he might be for real. The gap between Lynn and Mikolas appears substantially larger than Greg Holland and the Cardinals’ ninth reliever.
The politics of Greg Holland make him a better signing for the Cardinals than Lynn would have been. Greg Holland could be released (if it comes to it) more easily than Lynn, and he has already proven to be easier to demote to a lesser role than Lynn (despite Lynn being in a position where his team doesn’t have sentimental reasons). Signing Lance Lynn would have hamstrung the Cardinals. They probably didn’t realize the degree to which Lynn would regress in 2018, but they deserve credit for sticking to their guns in predicting regression to some extent. Not too much credit, as their alternative (signing Greg Holland) is only marginally better than what they avoided, but some amount of it.
Oh, and also I love Lance Lynn and feel bad declaring him toast. Here’s important video of him being delightful.