Saturday’s Grapefruit League game with the Boston Red Sox was a total washout, but that allowed the Minnesota Twins to dip into their rainy-day fund yet again. The offseason of turnover continued — in a positive sense — as the Twins reportedly agreed to a one-year deal worth $12 million with former St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn.
Fan Rag Sports’ Jon Heyman was the first to report momentum of the deal:
Jon Paul Morosi of MLB Network was first to have the terms:
…and a number of local reporters were able to confirm the initial report:
Lynn was tendered a qualifying offer — which he rejected — and will end up getting less than that would have promised, but Morosi also reported that the righty, who turns 31 in mid-May, turned down longer and/or more lucrative offers because he liked the direction the Twins were heading.
Lynn had his worst season as a big leaguer in 2017, but it goes a bit deeper than just the surface level.
For the year, Lynn posted a 3.43 ERA, but also had a 4.82 FIP. His strikeouts tumbled (8.5 career, 7.4 last year), his walks jumped and his BABIP was a stunningly-low .244.
In short, a lot of the markers beneath surface level suggested that his 3.43 ERA was a mirage — which is essentially what the FIP means, more or less.
Lynn also set a career-high mark with 1.3 home runs allowed per nine. That’s around league average based on last year’s league-wide spike, but still well above his career mark (0.79).
So why is there any sort of confidence that Lynn could get back to who he was before, even on the wrong side of 30?
Because he was coming back from Tommy John surgery, which cost him all of 2016. Prior to that, Lynn was a terrific — and perhaps underrated — starter in a Cardinals system that is known for putting out these kinds of pitchers.
Prior to his injury, Lynn had a run of four full seasons (2012-15) where he averaged 189 innings with a 3.38 ERA, nearly a strikeout per inning (8.6 K/9) and a FIP (3.39) almost identical to his ERA.
In short, he wasn’t getting by via the skin of his teeth, which was the case in his first year post-TJ in 2017. The prevailing wisdom tends to be that pitchers are better the further they get from their surgery date — this isn’t terribly surprising — and this seems to be more true with guys midway through their careers like Lynn as opposed to pitchers in the mid-30s or older.
Joe Nathan, for instance, was able to come back from late-career TJ surgery — he missed his age-35 season in 2010 — but needed a full year to round back into form.
In 2011, which was Nathan’s final year with the Twins, he posted a 4.84 ERA (4.28 FIP) in 44.2 innings. The next year with Thad Levine’s Rangers, he was back to being vintage Joe Nathan: 2.80 ERA, 10.9 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9. His ERA the year after that? A stunning 1.39.
None of this is to say that Tommy John surgery is a 100 percent proposition, but it does continue to get better.
Lynn’s 2017 was a tale of two seasons, as well.
In the first half, Lynn had a 3.61 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 — all marks the Twins would be just fine with this season. He did, however, allow 20 home runs in just 102.1 innings.
Lynn had never allowed 20 homers in any full season prior to 2017, and here he’d done it in just one half. He got past that in the second half, as he allowed just seven round-trippers in 84 post-break innings, and his ERA dropped to 3.21 but it came with a cratering strikeout rate (6.4 K/9) and a WHIP of 1.35.
With a lot of pitchers, fatigue can set in as the innings pile up. With younger pitchers, this is why a lot of them are eased back in with shorter innings loads, though older pitchers don’t necessarily see that as much. That was also true with former Cardinals teammate Adam Wainwright — a workhorse in his own right — who came back after a 2011 procedure to throw 198.2 innings in 2012.
It’s different for every pitcher, clearly.
There are some other signs of encouragement in Lynn’s profile. Despite the varying halves, Lynn allowed OPS marks of .706 in the first half and .707 in the second. They came in different forms, to be sure, but it’s not like he was getting throttled at either point.
Lynn also absolutely nuked right-handed hitters last year, holding them to a collective .203/.269/.331 line. Lefties hit .245/.354/.463 against him with 17 of his 27 homers allowed, but Target Field naturally suppresses left-handed power.
According to StatCorner.com, the left-handed park factor for home runs at Target Field last year was 95, and no hit factor is higher than 103 for lefties. The lowest one for righties is 103 (singles), while homers is a staggering 116.
For a point of reference, St. Louis’ Busch Stadium was 98 for left-handed homers last year and 82 for righties.
There’s certainly reason to believe Lynn won’t get all his strikeouts back. He won’t be facing pitchers two or three times per game anymore, for instance. He also isn’t a particularly big swing-and-miss guy, either. He’s never posted a swinging-strike rate of 10 percent — though he’s come close — and he’s never been lower than 8.0 percent. In short, he’s really consistent there.
For a reference point, the MLB average for starting pitchers last year was 9.8 percent. Then again, Lynn will play up a bit relatively speaking, since Twins fans are more used to guys with anywhere from 5.0-7.0 K/9 rather than Lynn, who is a full whiff per nine above that.
Lynn’s velocity had seen a bit of a dive in 2015 before he went on the shelf, and he got back to those levels in 2017 with the Cardinals. Instead of averaging in the 92-93 mph range like he did earlier in his career, he was more along the lines of 91-92.
For a pitcher who is so fastball heavy — over 80 percent (!) of his pitches the last two years — his performance can certainly ebb and flow with the performance of the pitch. What’ll be worth monitoring is how he uses his pitches to try stem the tide against lefties, against whom he’s been worse against his entire career:
- v. RHH – .232/.286/.338
- v. LHH – .257/.356/.427
Despite the gap, the v. LHH line isn’t horrifying — it’s merely worrisome, though again, Target Field will naturally help.
Lynn is also known for his colorful postgame interviews, as seen here and at the top of the page:
The signing will cost the Twins a draft pick — No. 95 overall, it appears — but at the cost of further closing the gap between them and the clearly weakened Cleveland Indians atop the AL Central, it’s absolutely worth it.
Lynn would have been worth it to the Twins on a four-year deal worth $60 million. At one year and $12 million — or even potentially $14 — this is an absolute steal.
This team is going to win 91 games. More on that another day.