Back in spring training, Lance Lynn was sort of the forgotten guy in the St. Louis Cardinals' rotation. There was Adam Wainwright, the ace and Cy Young contender; there was Michael Wacha, coming off that dynamic postseason run and entering his first full season; there was Shelby Miller, the much-heralded first-round pick coming off an excellent rookie season; even Carlos Martinez seemed to get more attention, as fans and writers wondered whether Martinez would transition from hard-throwing eighth-inning reliever to the rotation. You even had Jaime Garcia and Joe Kelly.
While Wainwright has had another big year, the others all suffered issues: Wacha just returned from a DL stint; Miller was inconsistent much of the season but has pitched better down the stretch; Martinez is still in the bullpen; Garcia got hurt again; and Kelly was dealt to Boston in the John Lackey trade.
Meanwhile, Lynn has gone from forgotten man to most important man. He's 15-9 with a 2.68 ERA entering his Sunday night start on ESPN against the Reds. The win-loss record shouldn't necessarily be a surprise, as Lynn ranks third in the National League in wins since the start of 2012 with 48, trailing only Wainwright (52) and Clayton Kershaw. Maybe more importantly, as Wainwright hit some rough patches after the All-Star Game, Lynn has pitched the best baseball of his career, with a 7-3 record and 1.89 ERA in 14 starts since the beginning of July.
Is Lynn a different pitcher than the one who recorded a 3.97 ERA in 2013? A quick glance may say that's not the case: His walk and strikeout rates are similar to last year (his K rate is actually down slightly, from 23.1 percent to 20.5 percent); he's allowed a few fewer home runs (14 in 201 2/3 innings last year, nine in 191 2/3 innings this year), but that wasn't a major problem last year. His FIP -- fielding-independent pitching -- is 3.18, nearly identical to his 3.28 mark of 2013.
Lynn's batting average on balls in play has declined from .323 in 2012 and .321 in 2013 to .293, about the league average. So is it simply a pitcher with better luck or better defense behind him? It's not always that simple, and in Lynn's case, there are some obvious reasons for his lower ERA.
One major reason is he's avoided the blow-up inning that has plagued him the past two seasons. In 2012-13, Lynn had 24 innings where he allowed three-plus runs; that's happened just just six times in 2014. This suggests a pitcher who has performed better out of the stretch. Indeed, with men on base, batters are hitting .219 against him with just one home run; in 2013, opponents hit .248 with seven home runs with runners on.
Another thing I noticed is that Lynn is throwing his fastball more with runners on: from 71 percent in 2012 to 74 percent last year to 84 percent this year, according to ESPN data. This is a definitely change in approach. Two years ago, he threw his curveball 19 percent of the time with runners on, but that's down to 5 percent this year. Lynn has both a four-seamer and a good two-seam sinker -- one reason he doesn't give up many home runs -- and it simply appears he's trusting these pitches more, especially the sinker, which he's also thrown more in general since the beginning of July. Which makes sense: Brooks Baseball has batters hitting .249 against the sinker after hitting .332 against it last year.
Some of that probably is improved infield defense: Jhonny Peralta has rated very well at shortstop this year, better than Pete Kozma; Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis rate better than Matt Carpenter at second; and Carpenter rates better than David Freese at third. Overall, the Cardinals have gone from minus-39 defensive runs saved to plus-61.
But Lynn also has improved against left-handed batters. It used to be that he was afraid to challenge them, resulting in high walk rates and home runs when he did go after them. Through the years against left-handed batters:
2012: .272 average, .456 slugging, 11 HR
2013: .259 average, .404 slugging, 6 HR
2014: .235 average, .350 slugging, 4 HR
Again, Lynn is simply throwing more fastballs -- 70 percent two years ago compared to 80 percent this year -- relying on fastball movement and command and fewer curveballs/sliders/changeups. Against lefties, he likes to pound the outside corner with his fastballs, but in checking his heat maps, this looks like a guy with much-improved command from 2012:
To me, this adds up to a better pitcher. Yes, there is perhaps some good fortune going on here -- Lynn has held batters to a .133 average with runners in scoring position since July 1 -- but he's better against left-handed batters, and he's made some minor adjustments in his approach.
Don't focus on the static strikeout rate. A hard sinker may not get a bunch of whiffs, but it gets ground balls and limits home runs. I believe that Lynn is a better pitcher in 2014. Next up: He'll get a chance to show it in the postseason, where he's struggled in the past -- in five starts, he's never made it through six innings and three times got knocked out before the fifth was over.