Lance Lynn knows a thing or two about getting started on the right foot.
The big right-hander pitched seven stellar innings last night, striking out eleven batters while allowing just three hits and six base runners overall en route to winning his third consecutive start.
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If it seems like Lynn is always coming out of the gate hot, that's because he is. After last night's start, Lynn has now authored an April resume consisting of the following: 12 starts, 11 wins, a .206 opponent batting average, a WHIP just over 1, and a 2.68 ERA. This is now the third consecutive season that Lynn has started with a 3-0 record. In his first two full seasons, Lynn experienced a marked regression from June-August before righting the ship and having excellent Septembers. If it happens two seasons in a row, it could be called a coincidence, but three is a trend. What is contributing to Lynn's early and late season success as opposed to what he's doing mid-season?
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Lets start with the obvious answer, velocity. It would make relative sense that if Lynn wasn't adept at conserving and building energy throughout the season, that he might be pumping fastballs a little bit harder out of the gate, as his arm is feeling a bit fresher. Over the course of his career, Lynn has averaged 92.7mph on his fastballs. So far this year, he has averaged 92.4mph, a tick slower than his career average. His two-seamer has been coming at 91mph, more than full 1mph slower than his career average of 92.2mph. So all signs point to the idea that Lynn is pretty much right at, if not a bit slower than his career norms for fastball velocity.
Another possibility could be a deviation in groundball:flyball/home run rates. Lynn has had relatively consistent home run rates across the board throughout his career. He has allowed a total between 6-8 home runs in each month in all seasons combined, save for May when he has only allowed two home runs. As far as his groundball to flyball ratios go, Lynn has been pretty consistent, allowing an average of about .85 groundballs for every flyball in each month of his career. His .53 number this year belies his 4.00 ERA.
So if it isn't a matter of velocity, and it isn't a problem with how many flyballs or homeruns he's allowing as the season progresses, then what gives? What is making Lynn look like an All-Star early on, and a replacement player by August? I can only find two statistics that follow a similar curve to Lynn's win and ERA totals: batting average on balls in play, or BAbip, and first pitch strike percentage.
Lynn's BAbip hovered below .275 for the early goings in 2013, before slowly increasing and peaking around .375 in August (when Lynn had a 5.84 ERA). Babip basically takes luck out of the batting average against category and shows how often balls that have been put in play go for hits. Lynn's percentage of first pitch strikes also goes down consistently as the season wears on. Not surprisingly, hitters batted .207 off of Lynn after an 0-1 count vs. a 1-0 count.
So what can we take from all of this? Basically the key for Lynn developing consistency possibly lies not in his stuff or his approach, but in his ability to work his way through at bats as a pitcher, and not a thrower. The fact that he is producing consistent strikeout numbers, velocity, and groundball to flyball ratios means that his mid-season meltdowns may have to do with a lack of focus during the dog days of summer. This can be backed up by the fact that as the post-season nears, Lynn becomes an elite pitcher again, as evidenced by a solid 7-3 record with a 2.44ERA and 10.7 K/9 in the month of September.
If Lynn simply uses the same pitch repertoire but improves his command and focuses on getting ahead of hitters early, we may finally see him make the transition this season to become one of the National League's dominant arms.
Stephen Nations is an aspiring sports and Cardinals columnist. He will be contributing his commentary to KSDK.com during the 2014 season. You can follow him on twitter at @Nayshface.