To understand how Lance Lynn has emerged a front-line starter without the due attention, you first must accept that he'll offer no air of niceties, no concern as to whether you like him or not. He certainly won't fit into the mold you think he should. And for that matter, he doesn't care if you've even noticed him these last three years.
He's surly and sarcastic, honest to the point that some inside the Cardinals organization cringe at the candor. He doesn't have Adam Wainwright's charm or John Lackey's postseason resume, Michael Wacha's storybook ascent or Shelby Miller's soothing Texas drawl.
He's a much more unlikable type, perhaps the reason why many in the St. Lous Cardinals' fan base were calling for him to be dealt last offseason to land a shortstop even though he had matched Wainwright's 33 wins from 2012-13. And perhaps it's the reason so few outside of St. Louis have noticed that the Cardinals' most consistent starter from season's start to September hasn't been the team's ace or the postseason wunderkind.
Rather, it's been the gruff right-hander who offers no apologies for not fitting in.
"We have so many leaders around here who are not very outspoken," Lynn says. "They have a tendency to be nice. That's good. But I guess every team needs that one guy who others fear."
Indeed, Lynn is not much for following the script, preferring to be blunt and almost always non-PC. His frankness is refreshing in an athlete-media culture where clichés or organization-driven messages too often dominate.
Lynn has no use for a facade, which is why, when recently asked about having more wins (48) since 2012 than any other NL starter not named Clayton Kershaw or Wainwright, Lynn quipped: "For a guy who averages 15 wins a year over a career, I'm one heck of a four or five." A fourth or fifth starter? "That's what you have been telling me I've been my whole career," he finished.
The motivation stemming from others' uncertainty about his ceiling has been entwined in his ascent, one that has seen Lynn butt heads with management's opinions while asserting his ability to do things his way.
Lynn is cut from the Chris Carpenter cloth, a brusque competitor who savors converting the skeptics. Only, Lynn can boast of maturing into a front-line starter much earlier in his career -- a reality that leaves the Cardinals excited about the right-hander's ceiling and also aware that the cost for his services is about to skyrocket.
He'll head into arbitration this winter as one of only three pitchers in franchise history -- joining Dizzy Dean (1932-36) and Harry Brecheen (1944-48) -- to win 15 or more games in three straight seasons, starting as a rookie or sophomore. He's been a bargain to this point, too, collecting less than $2 million since debuting in 2011. Market value for his contributions from then until now (according to a Fangraphs.com metric that converts a player's WAR to a dollar scale based on what that player would make in free agency) is nearly $50 million.
It's all indicative of him being a top-of-the-rotation talent without the accompanying compensation or recognition.
"I told anyone in Spring Training who would listen that he was my pick to click this year," Wainwright said a day before Lynn's last start, a complete-game effort on 101 pitches. "He was the guy who I thought was going to take off, and obviously he has. As good as he's pitched in the past, there was so much left in the tank. His natural ability is through the roof.
"I always kid with him that as soon as I retire, he's going to win a lot of Cy Youngs. I just think he has such great ability, and he's built for big innings. He's built for big-inning numbers and carrying a team deep into a season, deep into games. He's got that playoff stuff, too. If you look at guys in the postseason, guys who have a lot of success, usually have big stuff. And he's got big stuff."
That big stuff is a repertoire built around the fastball. The difference is, Lynn has three above-average ones -- a four-seamer, a two-seamer and a cutter. The velocities of the three may not feature much variance, but the actions on the pitches are in such contrast that Lynn has been able to reduce his reliance on the changeup, curveball and slider.
He's ridden that fastball-heavy mix to a 2.73 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, .238 opponents batting average, 15 wins and the lowest home run rate (0.39 per nine innings) in the majors. He's allowed two or fewer earned runs in 11 of his last 13 starts and sits one behind Wainwright with 21 quality starts.
Among Major League pitchers with 180-plus innings as of Lynn's last start, he ranked in the top seven in earned runs (56) and hits allowed (167).
"He's strong. He's tough physically. He's tough mentally," manager Mike Matheny says. "He's one of those guys that as he gets deeper in the game, he seems to get better. And he's still young. That's a nice combination."
A maturation process
Lynn believed year three would be critical in his career, knowing that it was time to move from discovery to dominant.
He has pitched this year with a beat-'em-with-your-best mentality, a simple approach in principal, but not always in practice. In years past, he combated struggles by forcing adjustments. A bad start in 2012 led him to move from the first-base side of the rubber to the third-base side. That led to a few more poor performances, and he eventually moved back. Even last year, there was a tendency to pitch to hitters' weaknesses instead of relying on what he does best. No more.
Such was the case last Thursday when he was outdueled by Johnny Cueto in a 1-0 loss.
"You make sure you get beat with what you have instead of trying to do something different," Lynn says. "You have to figure out how to get them out with your strengths. If they can still beat you, at least you didn't give in."
It can be easy to forget that Lynn turned 27 just three months ago since he is the second-longest tenured Cardinals starter behind Wainwright. He won 18 games in his first full big league season and 15 in the next. Only Max Scherzer and R.A. Dickey accrued more in that span (and Wainwright tied Lynn with 33 wins), and both have a Cy Young Award to document it.
Still, the Cardinals were insistent that Lynn hadn't hit his ceiling. That 2012 win total was bloated by run support, as no one in the Majors had better offensive backing than Lynn (5.90 runs per game). Lynn also had a propensity for blow-up innings. In his first 70 starts, 28 times Lynn allowed three or more earned runs in an inning.
It was a topic of constant quibble during Lynn's rookie and sophomore seasons. Some on the Cardinals' coaching staff saw Lynn's demonstrative reaction to things going wrong around him as showing up teammates. Opponents sometimes thought it was directed their way. Lynn often didn't intend for either.
"You don't want anybody on the other side to know [you're upset]," Matheny explains. "You want to keep pitching. If something great happens, you pitch. If something [negative] happens behind you or you do something wrong, you pitch. And next thing you know, you've increased your odds of getting out of it.
"It's amazing because his stuff would look so good in years past and then his emotions would start to get the best of him and it was inevitable that more mistakes started to happen. I think it's because your mind gets so concentrated on the emotion of it that it's not on the execution of the next pitch."
There was not, however, immediate buy-in to the Cardinals' requests for Lynn to tone it down. Rather than see the Cardinals' efforts as trying to help him mature, Lynn felt he was trying to be stripped of one of the attributes that had defined his career path.
"I've always pitched with a lot of emotion and attitude," Lynn says. "From the age of 12 on up, everyone loved it. It wasn't until I got here that it got me in trouble. Mike's first year, he didn't really like it at first. Now, I think he knows that is who I am and that is how I have to be to be successful. He might have thought I was being a young kid with a bad attitude, but I think he realized that was not what I was trying to do. That was just the way I compete."
It became part of a two-year exercise in self-discovery, which also included the issue of his weight. When the Cardinals suggested offseason dieting after the 2012 season, Lynn dropped 40 pounds. Everyone gushed over the transformation, only to watch Lynn lose stamina when August rolled around. He looks back and believes the slide on the scale compromised his durability.
"I think in the first two years, I was trying to do things to make people happy," Lynn says. "But after a while, you have to be who you are in order to be successful. When you're trying to be something you're not, it's hard to concentrate on the real goal. The real goal is to go out there pitch, and try to get everybody out."
He's physically strong these days as he marches on toward a second straight season of 200-plus innings, and whether Lynn has noticed or not, he's handling his emotions differently, often letting them out when he stifles a rally instead of mid-inning when things go wrong behind him.
Among those who helped Lynn mature was Carpenter, who assured him there it was OK to pitch angry, if channeled properly. The payoff to that advice has been in the results. In his last 22 outings, Lynn has had one snowball inning of three or more runs allowed.
"He has an edge when he pitches, and that's fine," general manager John Mozeliak says. "A lot of good pitchers do, frankly. He has an ability right now to harness that and really manage the damage much better."
With the adjustment, Lynn has broken through from a pitcher with potential to one who could currently challenge for ace status in another rotation. Now it's just a matter of whether the attention will follow.
Of course, he couldn't care less if it does.
"There are guys who are going to be forgotten on every staff. That's part of it," Lynn says. "Some people are overhyped. Some people are underhyped. It depends on what city you're in, who likes you more than others. That's how it goes in life. Some people like you more than others."
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