With Sonny Gray unable to produce, the Yankees made two starting pitching acquisitions at last year’s trade deadline: J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn.
Happ dominated for the final two months, Lynn was his, until this season, mediocre self, and neither made a positive contribution in the postseason. Going into the offseason, the Yankees’ eventual course of action — Trade Gray, sign Happ and let Lynn go — seemed reasonable.
Gray’s turnaround in Cincinnati was foreseeable with his struggles in the New York environment and disagreements with the coaching staff. Happ, being a mid-30s pitcher, could have been expected to suffer a decline, though the precipitous drop in stuff and results has been staggering.
What we didn’t know at the time is that Lynn, in his age-32 season, would see his fastball jump in velocity, spin rate and success, turning him back into an upper-tier starter after a disappointing 2018. It all comes full circle Wednesday as Lynn faces the Yankees with the lead in pitching WAR according to Fangraphs.
For the season, Lynn had a 3.77 ERA and 3.00 FIP while pitching in both a strong hitters park in Texas and the Rangers’ porous defense. I personally don’t believe he’s been the best pitcher in baseball — the adjustments for his ballpark and defense seem a bit fishy to me — but he’s no doubt improved on the mound. His strikeout rate has improved by 4.1 percent and he’s lowered his walk rate by 4.2 percent, all while keeping his home runs low as he did a year ago.
The strong peripherals actually began to improve with the Yankees, though his swinging strike rate has ticked up significantly in Texas. If you remember, Lynn was a victim of a barren free agent market in 2017-18 and signed with the Twins without a traditional Spring Training. He was slow out of the gate in Minny, but by the end of his tenure with the Twins and his time in New York, he was at his best pre-Tommy John surgery peak.
Sporting a 2.17 FIP to a 4.14 ERA with the Yankees, Lynn may have been hurt by the Bombers’ questionable defense a season ago — wide swaths of his Yankee tenure included Aaron Judge out, Miguel Andujar at third base and Gleyber Torres/Luke Voit still finding their footing on the right side of the infield. At the same time, his Statcast numbers show him turning into an entirely different pitcher, so the Yankees aren’t entirely to blame.
The Yankees didn’t tinker much with his pitch selection, not imposing their anti-fastball philosophy on a pitcher who excels almost exclusively on the pitch. However, with a velocity and spin rate jump, Lynn has thrown his four-seam fastball more, increasing it to over 50 percent usage while lessening his reliance on his sinker.
The saying goes that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, yet this age of baseball development has shown that even veterans like Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton can re-invent themselves and find more velocity.
Should the Yankees have seen a new-look Lynn coming with a full spring and a change in offseason regiment? Perhaps. It’s worth wondering how much passing on Lynn was a Yankees mistake vs. an unexpected improvement and a success story for the Rangers. I side closer to the latter — there wasn’t much clamoring for a reunion this winter — but Lynn is a valuable innings eater, in the best sense of that term, even before his sudden improvement.
Lynn will give the Yankees’ lineup a tough test Wednesday. At the same time, he provides an example for how they could have misjudged a player in-house, and gives them something to think about going into their next set of free agent choices.