Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. Last Wednesday, we published the honorable mentions. Last Thursday, we looked at our #25 player, Todd Stottlemyre. Last Friday, we looked at our #24 player, David Freese. And yesterday, we looked at our #23 player, Andy Benes.
Lance Lynn was never the best pitcher on the St. Louis Cardinals. He was never the pitching prospect which most excited Cardinals fans, and he spent material chunks of his time with the St. Louis Cardinals having the mere fact that he had a job in the starting rotation questioned. But when all was said and done and the curtains closed on Lance Lynn’s time with the Cardinals, he was a critical part of some of the most memorable teams in franchise history.
Lance Lynn was a first-round pick as a 21 year-old out of the University of Mississippi, so it is not as though his relatively speedy ascent to St. Louis came out of nowhere. Entering the 2011 season in which Lynn made his MLB debut, he was widely regarded as a fourth-starter type; this is hardly a negative thing, as MLB fourth-starters are still multimillionaires for a reason, but the point remains that Lance Lynn had been lapped by the likes of Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Tyrell Jenkins, and Seth Blair in terms of Cardinals pitching prospects. Lynn was a few years older than this group, so he was on the fast track to make it to the big leagues, but he wasn’t exactly an exhilerating prospect. Cardinals fans who followed the farm could see Shelby Miller and see the heir apparent to Adam Wainwright. Lance Lynn looked more like the heir apparent to Jake Westbrook.
But Lance Lynn did have the first mover advantage in the race to the Cardinals’ starting rotation, and in his abbreviated audition in 2011, he pitched superbly. His appearances with the big-league club were mostly in the bullpen–the Cardinals, after all, weren’t really in a position in 2011 to potentially spare a valuable game to some 24 year-old newcomer. But in his 34 2/3 innings, he exhibited a panache for strikeouts which was rare in the Tony LaRussa era, and by the end of the regular season, he had a solid 3.12 ERA and an even stronger 2.88 FIP. The return of starting pitchers, the addition of relief pitchers at and after the trade deadline, and mid-August injury concerns made Lynn redundant, keeping him out of commission for the legendary September of 2011, but he returned and pitched out of the bullpen in both the NLCS and World Series. Despite a truly awful relief appearance in Game 6 of the World Series, in which Lynn allowed three runs off two home runs in 1 2/3 innings, Tony LaRussa trusted Lynn in the 8th inning of Game 7, where he pitched a 1-2-3 inning which included a strikeout of Adrian Beltre to end the frame. This is not a responsibility that a manager as coldly competitive as Tony LaRussa delegates to make a 24 year-old feel better about himself. This is one delegated out of a sincere belief that Lance Lynn was the right man for the job.
Lance Lynn was not expected to appear in the Cardinals’ Opening Day rotation in 2012, given Adam Wainwright’s return from his lost season of 2011, but the Spring Training news that Chris Carpenter would miss most, if not all, of the 2012 season allowed for an opening, and Lynn was the logical next man up. And he thrived. Lynn was named an All-Star after compiling a 11-4 record with a solid 3.41 ERA which sat comfortably between his FIP and xFIP. 2012 was arguably nearly the very end of pitcher wins being considered a relevant stat by anybody, and it probably didn’t hurt that the All-Star roster was being chosen by the man, Tony LaRussa, who had showed such unflapping faith in him during the 2011 postseason. But whether Lance Lynn deserved to be an All-Star or not, he sure looked like a real good pitcher. And he had just turned 25.
Lynn allowed one total run in his next two starts following the All-Star Break, but then things started to take a bit of a turn. He allowed six runs in a start at Wrigley Field, and save a respectable six inning, two run outing against the Colorado Rockies, his next six starts were mediocre-to-bad. His nadir came in an August 24 start against the eventual NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds, where Lynn was chased after two innings and four runs allowed, after which the previously inconceivable occurred–Lance Lynn was demoted to relief duty.
Lynn did eventually return, and with mostly good results, to the starting rotation in mid-September. In the NLDS against the Washington Nationals, Lynn made three appearances in relief–in the first, he got the hold and in the second, he got the win, but it was his third appearance, in which he surrendered a walk-off home run to Jayson Werth to extend the series to five games, for which Lynn was to be remembered. Even after the heroics of the next night, a walk-off home run was the lingering taste of Lance Lynn. And in the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants, the lingering taste was the Game 5 start, with a trip to the World Series on the line, during which he surrendered four runs in the fourth inning and was decisively outdueled by Barry Zito.
2013 was a magical season for the Cardinals, marked by an absurdly high batting average with runners in scoring position. But this good fortune did not extend to Lance Lynn. While Lynn did clear 200 innings and spent the full season in the starting rotation, his ERA had jumped to nearly 4. But by FIP, he was quite good. Of the sport’s 81 qualified pitchers in 2013, Lynn ranked tied for 58th by ERA, but tied for 28th by FIP. Depending on the metric, he was either comparable to Jarrod Parker or to Justin Verlander.
Unlike, say, Max Scherzer, Lance Lynn was not particularly outspoken about advanced pitching statistics or techniques (nor was he particularly outspoken about anything), but he became a popular cause for analytically-driven Cardinals fans. Comparisons of the dry innings-eater with a superior FIP to ERA in Lynn was easily juxtaposed with the outwardly jovial swingman Joe Kelly, who coupled a 2.69 ERA with a far less enthralling 4.01 FIP. In the end, manager Mike Matheny chose both when it came to his postseason rotation, with rookie Shelby Miller instead being left in the bullpen.
And in 2014, the script flipped. Lance Lynn went from the maligned starter with a nearly 4 ERA to the team’s undisputed second-banana in the rotation. And this was despite a lower strikeout rate and a worse FIP and xFIP than in 2013. But a 2.74 ERA in 203 2/3 innings, for those who had critiqued his ballooning ERA, was undeniable. Lynn wasn’t quite the same innings-eater in 2015, but with a 3.03 ERA, he remained an indispensible part of the Cardinals rotation.
Lance Lynn missed the 2016 season, recovering from Tommy John Surgery, and while his ERA in 2017 remained a solid 3.43, the season was an even more dramatic, but in reverse, version of his 2013. His strikeout rate was a career low and his walk rate was a career high, all the way to a 4.82 FIP. The Cardinals gave Lynn a token qualifying offer, but given that Lynn remained a free agent until March 2018, when he signed with the Minnesota Twins, it was clear that the Cardinals were just attempting to acquire another draft pick (which they later used on Luken Baker, most recently the star of Nolan Arenado trade rumors).
Not unlike my already-established feelings of affection towards Jon Jay, I received a disproportionate amount of joy from Lance Lynn due to his propensity for being a survivor. He was superficially so ordinary and so replaceable and yet he always managed to fight his way into relevance. And yet, while much of his early Cardinals career was defined by his statistical record–a representation of a new era of pitcher analysis–the greatest highlight of his Cardinals career came during the team’s 2015 home opener, not through something he accomplished on the mound (he didn’t pitch) but when, in a simple gesture of humanity, he gently put his arm around a visibly shaken Carlos Martinez as a tribute to Martinez’s close friend Oscar Taveras played on the stadium scoreboard. And as much as we can point to his numbers in St. Louis or his two Cy Young-caliber seasons with the Texas Rangers, perhaps this brotherly gesture was the truly important moment.