Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Is Lance Lynn pitching to contact?

In 74 career major-league games started prior to May 27, 2014, Lance Lynn had only ever made it as late in the game as eight innings (twice). So when he turned the trick of completing nine innings Tuesday night, it was something to celebrate, especially given the decided lack of confidence in the righty from fans as well as what appears to be from his employer. That he completed the game in style — as in a shutout — made it that much sweeter. The icing on the cake was that he did it against the Yankees (albeit a Yankee team featuring Kelly Johnson at first base).

But beyond the headline complete game, Lynn’s outing was strange. True, he faced a career-high 34 batters (previous high was 33 set last June 26). But he struck out nearly a career-low two batters. In only two career starts has Lynn whiffed fewer, and he lasted just five and two innings in those contests. What’s more, he walked three — almost his high-water mark in that category on the season.

Until Tuesday, Lynn exhibited a strong correlation (.60) between his strikeouts and his batters faced, which stands to reason: The more batters you face, the more opportunities you’ll have to whiff them. So it was ironic that the burly right-hander who own’s the franchise’s 2nd- and 4th-highest single-season strikeout rates (9.20 in 2012, 8.84 in 2013), earned his first complete game by inducing 85% (29 of 34) of batters to put the ball into play. Has the Hoosier Thunderbolt, Jr. suddenly become a pitch-to-contact disciple of Dave Duncan?

Probably not. First, this game was an outlier on Lynn’s season. It’s true that his overall strikeout rate is down, but not meaningfully so. Second, a starting pitcher’s chances at a complete game are highly contextual, and circumstances over which he has no control enter the equation. For instance, on the heels of a 12-inning affair, in which he deployed five relief pitchers and staring at 12 consecutive games ahead, Mike Matheny was surely more apt than usual to give Lynn a long leash. And the fact that the Cardinals held a four-run lead from the third inning on gave the Cardinal manager plenty of reason to give Lynn a chance to deal himself a loner.

It’s worth noting, though, that perceptions may also play a part, namely the way in which a pitcher is succeeding. Could it be that Matheny and his staff perceive one way of succeeding — say, through inducing ground balls — over another?  In Lynn’s case this season, his ground ball rate has a stronger correlation to his staying in the game than does his strikeout rate. We’ll see if that holds for the rest of the season. But regardless of whether Lynn has begun his conversion to becoming a pitch-to-contact guy, it may be that, if he wants to complete some more games, that will be his best chance.

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