Updated: Dec 15, 2017
Last April I was exploring FanGraphs' new Splits Leaderboards when I stumbled upon something pretty interesting: Lance Lynn pitched very well his third time through the order in 2014 and 2015 when compared to the rest of the National League, and when compared to his second time through the order. Pretty interesting, no? The third time through the order is when you expect pitchers to tire and get run from games, especially when that pitcher is Lynn and he's been pumping fastballs all evening. And especially when that pitcher is managed by Mike Matheny, who leaves his starters in for too long. (It's been documented.)
I wrote an article about this at the time for Viva El Birdos, and the tl;dr version of it was this: Lynn's OPS against, wOBA against, FIP, and K-BB% consistently improved his third time through the order in 2014 and 2015 versus the rest of the NL, as well as his own second time through the order, and in the case of K-BB% the difference was pretty stark.
Henry Druschel of Beyond the Box Score caught wind of the column and took a deeper look. Druschel noted that Lynn wasn't changing his approach as he pitched deeper into games; Lynn's pitch location remained relatively stable as did his velocity. Druschel didn't firmly conclude that it was sheer luck, because who honestly knows, but a fair read of the column is that he leaned that way.
By now, of course, the returns from the 2017 season are in, and chalking this phenomenon up to luck looks to be on the mark. Using the same stats (OPS against, wOBA against, FIP, K-BB%) that I analyzed last April, here were Lynn's numbers his first, second, and third time through the order in 2017, as compared to the rest of NL starting pitchers:
You heard a lot about Lynn's peripherals in 2017 not reflecting his actual run prevention numbers and that was widely evident his third time through the order, where his performance worsened unlike in 2014 and 2015. Instead, in 2017, Lynn settled in and put up his best numbers his second time through the order which stood in direct contrast to 2014 and 2015. But his FIP and K-BB% took a pretty steep dive as the innings wore on due to his strikeout rate dropping to 15.0 percent and his walk rate climbing to an unsightly 13.4 percent, compared to an NL average of 18.3 and 8.4 percent, respectively, when facing a lineup for the third time. The luck ran out indeed.
Or at least sort of. Another reading is that Lynn was luckier than ever overall given his ERA in 2017 (3.43) compared to his FIP (4.82). I'm hesitant to use FIP as an end-all, be-all to measure a pitcher's value or predictive future, especially a pitcher like Lynn whose repertoire is so specialized and fastball heavy, but it's hard to look at his 2017 season from any angle and conclude that it wasn't a step down from 2014 and 2015.
On the other hand, this is possibly too harsh of an assessment. Lynn was a full two years older in 2017 from when these stats were last analyzed after losing an entire season to Tommy John surgery, returns from which are unpredictable. I don't know what the studies say, if anything, about the first season coming back from Tommy John but it might be fair to extend some sort of grace period or mulligan or whatever you want to call it. So I will still be keeping an eye on Lynn's through-the-order stats next season although given his free agent status and the unlikely possibility that he re-signs with the Cardinals, it will probably be while he's wearing another uniform.