THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Though Lance Lynn was hammered for an astonishing 48 total home runs in 2023, the Cardinals didn’t knock it out of the park by signing the old friend to a one-year contract that guarantees him $11 million in 2024.
That said, if the big righthander can do a better job of keeping the ball from flying over the wall next season, this could work out. I don’t hate the signing as long as it’s part of a larger plan that puts Lynn near the back end of the rotation instead of counting on him to be a high-end starter.
Let’s address the ominous home-run cloud – caused by bombs bursting in air – that drifted above Lynn’s head in 2023.
Lynn was taken deep 44 times during the regular season. And in Lynn’s postseason start for the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLDS, Arizona hitters launched four solo home runs – all in the third inning! – in the victory that completed a series sweep. If we include that one postseason assignment, Lynn was cudgeled for 48 home runs for an average of 2.31 homers per nine innings.
That’s … extreme.
If we limit the ballistic report to the regular season, Lynn yielded 2.16 home runs per nine innings in ‘23. If you don’t realize how bad this was, this will give you an idea:
Among MLB pitchers that worked at least 180 innings in a single regular season, here are the four highest HR rates allowed per nine innings:
* Jose Lima, Astros, 2.2 in 2000.
* Lance Lynn, White Sox and Dodgers, 2.16 in 2023.
* Bronson Arroyo, Reds, 2.08 in 2011.
* Lucas Giolito (three teams), 2.00 in 2023.
(Hey, Giolito is still out there, available as a free-agent. Just saying … )
When asked about the home-run barrage late in the 2023 season, Lynn had this to say: “I mean, once you go over 30 (allowed), who gives a s–t? It’s just kind of one of those years where they come in bunches. It’s been the worst of my career, home-run wise. Bad pitch selection, bad execution. Everything that could go bad has gone bad when they’ve had the opportunity.”
On a personal level, I like Lynn a lot. I enjoyed watching him and writing about him during his formative MLB seasons (2011 through 2017) with the Cardinals. He’s a colorful character with a renegade streak. And he was a damn good starter for St. Louis.
After pitching out of the bullpen as a rookie in 2011, Lynn moved into the rotation. From 2012 through 2017, he pitched to a 3.37 ERA, led St. Louis pitchers in starts and strikeouts, and was second to Adam Wainwright in wins, innings, quality starts and WAR.
That, however, was a long time ago. So what is the point of signing Lynn, who turns 37 years old on May 13?
— He’s durable. Over the last seven seasons Lynn ranks eighth among major-league pitchers in starts, ninth in innings, and 13th in quality starts. He’s among the most dependable innings-ingesting omnivores in the bigs. And the Cardinals are desperately in need of rotation stability. Since 2017, Lynn is one of only 12 MLB starters to log 1,000 or more innings over that time.
— From 2017 through 2022, Lynn was one of only seven major-league starters to put together this combination: a minimum of 900 innings with an ERA of 3.67 or better. The six others to do it were Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler, Zack Greinke, Aaron Nola and Charlie Morton. He was one of the top starting pitchers in the majors over a six-season stretch – before his disastrous 2023.
— The Cardinals had a soft and whiny pitching staff in 2023 and could use an enforcer. Lynn speaks his mind. In the words of James Brown, papa don’t take no mess. He has no problem questioning authority. He can make other pitchers uncomfortable. And that’s a valuable thing for a team that needs to reestablish a winning culture.
Now here’s the problem: I don’t see how Lynn can be an effective leader if he’s getting blown up for 48 homers and a 5.84 ERA – his brutal numbers for the regular season and postseason combined in 2023. He can be an effective leader only if he’s a reasonably effective pitcher.
Much of this will come down to Lynn’s late-career trajectory. Can he rebound from the misery endured in 2023? Can he get closer to the pitching form that made him a so reliably good from 2017 through 2022?
FOUR REASONS WHY HE CAN DO IT
1. Last season 19 percent of the fly balls hit off Lynn went for a home run. That’s ridiculous. It’s most likely an outlier. That preposterous HR/FLY should come down in ‘24. After all, his career HR/FLY rate of 11.2 percent is better than the league average. Here’s some research from Viva El Birdos: Over the last 11 seasons, 87.5 percent of starting pitchers that had a drastically inflated HR/FLY rate in a season have reduced the figure by an average of around 5.2 percent the following year. If Lynn’s HR/FLY rate decreases to 14 percent – which would match his 2022 figure – his ERA will go down accordingly. The 2022 version of Lynn had a fielding independent ERA of 3.82. That would work in ‘24.
2. While it’s true that Lynn’s velocity has ticked down a bit, it’s nothing catastrophic. His average fastball velocity (92.6) can still play. He may need to change his pitch sequencing to be less predictable. Also: the Cardinals believe he’s been tipping his fastball and the issue can be fixed. We’ll see. But there’s something to work with because Lynn ranked among the top 31 percent of MLB pitchers in fastball spin rate in 2023.
3. Last season Lynn’s swing-and-miss rate remained at his career norm, and that’s a positive sign. And while his strikeout rate dropped to 23.6 percent – his lowest in a season since 2018 – there are a few quick things we should recognize: (a) Lynn’s strikeout rate was above the league average; (b) his strikeout rate before being traded to the Dodgers was 27 percent; (c) St. Louis starting pitchers collectively generated a pathetic 17.4% strikeout rate in 2023 that ranked 29th among 30 teams. In other words, Lynn will give this crew a boost in strikeout pop.
4. The comfort of Busch Stadium. In 484 career innings at Busch, Lynn has a 2.85 ERA, allowed a .342 slugging percentage and was popped for only 0.6 home runs per nine innings. When he’s pitched in all other stadiums, Lynn has a 4.04 ERA in 1,383 innings and has been hit for a .407 slug and 1.2 homers per nine innings.
FOUR REASONS WHY HE CAN’T DO IT
1. The aging curve pulls down his quality and the capacity for a high innings count. Lynn’s stuff hasn’t been holding up as well in recent seasons. Over the past three years combined, when he encountered the opposing lineup for the third time in a game, Lynn was clubbed for a .506 slug, and has given up an average of 2.5 homers per nine innings. One way or another his fastball and cutter – his two favorite pitches – must improve in 2024. Last season hitters banged 21 homers and slugged .512 against his fastball and bashed 11 homers with a .506 slug against the cutter.
2. In addition to his home-run vulnerability, every indicator went the wrong way against Lynn in 2023. A decreased velocity on all of his pitches. An increase in the barrel rate, hard-hit rate and sweet-spot rate against him. A decline in strikeout rate and an increase in walk rate. Increases against him in batting average and slugging and expected batting average and slugging. And perhaps most glaring of all was a negative value on every type of pitch he utilized in 2024. That’s alarming.
3. His career stats at Busch Stadium could be misleading. The positive career numbers at Busch covered a stretch that ended in his age 30 season. Can he do it again at age 37? And Lynn also had the bulk of his starts caught by Yadier Molina. What about Lynn pitching to Willson Contreras? This should be … interesting.
4. This isn’t intended as a cheap shot, but Lynn would probably benefit from pitching at a lower weight. Before the 2013 season, Lynn worked hard to drop pounds and improve his conditioning. The result was a 202-inning season and a 3.28 FIP. Lynn knows what works best for him, so we’ll see if he makes any changes. In 2023, Lynn was listed at 270 pounds.
Last season White Sox broadcast analyst Steve Stone ignited controversy with these on-air observations during a game: “Lynn’s had a lot of leg issues and other things. “If cardiovascularly it’s bothering him with the pitch clock, maybe a couple salads would help, and I don’t know if he’s having problems with that. But if that is a problem, then maybe if you improve your cardiovascular by losing a couple pounds or doing whatever he’s gonna do to work out.” (Stone later apologized for his comments.)
On another occasion, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts suggested that Lynn was holding back on his velocity so he could last longer in games. Lynn didn’t object; he conceded that he had not been “airing it out,” with a goal of pitching deeper into games. Lynn’s endurance could improve if he makes changes. But we won’t know about that unless he makes those changes.
So what does this signing mean for the Cardinals’ offseason pitching plans? I’ll be back later today to look at that in another column. As I finish this piece, the Cardinals just signed righthander Kyle Gibson to a one-year deal worth $12 million, with an option for 2025. It is a move that I predicted last week on my KFNS radio show. I’ll write a quick column about that which should be available by 3 p.m. STL time.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.