At the conclusion of the 2015 season, the Cardinals were eliminated from the NLDS in a 3-1 Series defeat to their archrivals, the Cubs. Less than a month later, The Cardinals announced that Lance Lynn had “surprise” Tommy John surgery. What a wonderful surprise! Lynn added his name to the ever-growing list of players that have undergone Tommy John surgery.
Tommy John surgery has a reputation of career altering magnitude, and many pitchers come back as a shell of themselves after the procedure (See: Liriano, Francisco). Others recover well, and it seems for now Lynn has joined the coalition of players in the success story category (See: Degrom, Jacob).
Lance Lynn is not the best pitcher on the free agent market. Highly touted pitchers like Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta will fetch a higher price. He may not the best pitcher in the market, but the gap between Lynn and the tippy-top is small. Let’s take a brief look at the 2017 bubble gum card pitching numbers for Darvish, Arrieta, and Lynn.
If you pulled the names off that list, scrambled them, and I asked you to guess who goes where, could you?
It’s okay if those numbers shocked you, because they shocked me, too. The peripherals are definitely less favorable for Lynn, but overall the numbers aren’t that much different. The numbers between 2015 and 2017 Lance Lynn also are quite similar. So, how did Lynn maintain such a high level of performance in 2017 after missing all of 2016 recovering from TJ? SPOILER: He changed his arm slot.
The first thing that I noticed when I started diving into 2015 Lance Lynn vs. 2017 Lance Lynn was the release point of his delivery. Let’s plot a start from pre-surgery (May 1, 2015) and post-surgery (May 6, 2017) on the same chart, and look at Lynn’s release point for each pitch in the starts. Here is what we get:
That y-axis is in feet. The median difference between the release points of 2015 and 2017 Lance Lynn’s pitches in these two starts is 4.61 inches. Lynn raised his release point by nearly 5 INCHES after TJ, and this change shows in the video, too.
I don’t need a Ph.D to see that the arm on the right (2017) is above his head, and the arm on the left (2015) isn’t. So, if Lynn raised his release point after TJ, what’s the advantage? How does it help? The short answer is that starting from a higher release point gives Lynn more space to work with vertically in the zone. This means he can put more break on the ball, and get more vertical movement on his pitches without throwing balls in the dirt. When we look at the vertical movement of his pitches for the whole seasons of 2015 and 2017, we see that’s exactly what he does.
Essentially, the farther away from 0 (the dotted line) a single point is on this graph, the greater the vertical movement of the pitch. You can easily see that for all pitches but the curveball, 2017 Lynn (red squares) had greater vertical movement than 2015 Lynn. Essentially, he capitalized on the extra vertical space his new release point allows him. In 2017, 4 of Lynn’s 5 pitches had at least 1.5 additional inches of vertical movement than 2015. This has allowed Lynn to maintain his performance level despite losing the bite on his curve (his only pitch with less vertical movement) after surgery.
Lynn also changed his pitch frequency dramatically in 2017 to better use his extra 5 vertical inches from the higher release point. That frequency change can be seen here:
Look at the increase in the sinker frequency! Little Lance is joining the league of sinker-ballers! With this shift in pitch repertoire, Lynn induced a ton of weak contact in 2017. Lynn had the 14th highest soft contact % in MLB, and 16th lowest hard contact % in MLB. The weak contact Lynn induced compensated for his reduction in strikeout rate, which can be seen here:
The end result of this is that Lynn has a much more sustainable approach on the mound. He doesn’t need the one big strikeout pitch, because all of his pitches move well, and he induces a lot of weak contact. Many stat-minded people look at strikeout rate as readout for value of a pitcher (looking at you, Adam Scheid). Lynn is breaking that mold, and continues to improve and adjust despite his reduced K rate. Clearly he isn’t afraid to make major adjustments in his tactics, and that means good things as he ages, and needs to rely more on veteran craftiness. Although he isn’t an ace, Lynn is a solid “2nd or 3rd in the rotation” type, and he’s definitely a guy to buy in the 2017 offseason as a solid long term investment.
Thanks to Brooks Baseball and Baseball Reference for pitching data and statistics.