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Lance Lynn finished third in the 2021 Cy Young voting.
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

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Lance Lynn: His Past, Present and Future With the White Sox

What will the Tonka Truck do for an encore in 2022?

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican and Arizona)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on a White Sox player
  5. Free agent options

This article delves into the career of Lance Lynn through 2020, his 2021 season with the White Sox, and what his future looks like with the team.

How did he get here?

The 2005 season was a banner year for the White Sox as we all know, winning the World Series and dominating the postseason by winning 11 of 12 games. Fewer than four months before the team and its fans began popping the corks, Indianapolis native Lance Lynn was drafted in the sixth round by the Seattle Mariners. As a prep pitching star from Brownsburg H.S., many believed he would eschew his verbal commitment with the University of Mississippi.

However, he went on to pitch three years for the Rebels, with his best year being as a sophomore when he fanned 146 hits and walked just 31 on his way to a 2.85 ERA and 1.12 WHIP during his 123 13 innings. Lynn’s junior year, however, was a bit of a disappointment, with a 4.52 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 89 23 innings, though he had good walk and strikeout totals (31 and 110). Still, his fastball, repertoire and pitchability were too tantalizing for the Cardinals, as they selected him 39th overall (their supplemental pick as a result of losing reliever Troy Percival via free agency) in the 2008 MLB draft.

Spending three years in the Cardinals minor league system, Lynn spent the first three months of the 2011 season with Triple-A Memphis before making his MLB debut pitching against the San Francisco Giants on June 11. Future Hall-of-Fame baseball person/manager Tony La Russa entered him into 18 games that year, 16 out of the pen, and Lynn rewarded the skipper with a 3.12 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. He even entered five games in relief in his triumphant team’s World Series championship over the Texas Rangers.

Lynn was a workhorse in the Cardinals rotation for the next several years, starting 29 games or more for five of the next six seasons (2012-15, 2017 ... he missed the entire 2016 campaign due to Tommy John surgery). Although Lynn won 18 games for St. Louis in 2012, his best bWAR season for the Redbirds came in 2014 (3.6), as he was 15-10 with a 2.74 ERA and 1.26 WHIP; in his 203 23 innings that year, he surrendered 185 hits (.238 OBA) and 72 walks (3.2 BB/9) while striking out 181 (8.0 K/9).

Signing a one-year, $12 million guaranteed contract with the Minnesota Twins on March 12, 2018 during what was a morbidly slow free agency process, Lynn suffered through his most difficult year in a baseball uniform. In 20 starts totaling 102 13 innings, he posted an unsightly 5.10 ERA and 1.63 WHIP by relinquishing 105 hits (.263 OBA) and uncharacteristically-high 62 walks (5.5 BB/9). In that year’s July trade deadline, he was shipped to the New York Yankees for first baseman Tyler Austin and reliever Luis Rijo. For the Bronx Bombers in 11 outings, Lynn rebounded a bit by producing a 4.14 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 54 13 innings.

Waiting less than three full months to sign his next free agent deal, Lynn received a slightly lower AAV in 2018 with the Texas Rangers, but with more longevity. He signed a three-year, $30 million deal in the hopes of reverting back to his pre-2018 form. Lynn proved his worth immediately, as he posted his best career bWAR to date in 2019 (7.5) by posting a 16-11 record in 33 starts with a 3.67 ERA and 1.22 WHIP; in a career high 208 13 innings, he allowed 195 hits (.243 OBA) and 59 walks (2.5 BB/9) while striking out a career-high 246 (10.6 K/9). Voters recognized his production by placing him fifth in that year’s AL Cy Young voting.

In many ways, 2020 was even better for Lynn, but his counting stats were obviously reduced due to the shortened pandemic season. In 13 starts for the Rangers totaling a league-high 84 innings, he posted a 3.32 ERA and 1.06 WHIP by relinquishing just 64 hits (.206 OBA) and 25 walks (2.7 BB/9) while fanning 89 (9.5 K/9). As a result, he was voted sixth in the AL Cy Young voting for that year. With one year left on his affordable deal and the Rangers going nowhere in the standings, they traded him to the White Sox on December 8 for young hurlers Dane Dunning and Avery Weems, in what seems to be a fair trade for both sides.

With the White Sox in 2021

In terms of bWAR (5.4), Lynn’s first year in the White Sox organization put him at the top of the 2021 rotation — ahead of his nearest competitors Carlos Rodón (5.0), Lucas Giolito (4.3) and Dylan Cease (2.9). In 28 starts totaling 157 innings, he posted a 2.69 ERA and 1.07 WHIP , as he surrendered just 123 hits (.209 OBA) and 45 walks (2.58 BB/9) compared to 176 strikeouts (10.1 K/9). He received his highest Cy Young votes to date, as he finished third behind only Blue Jays southpaw Robbie Ray and Yankee righty Gerrit Cole.

Righties hit Lynn this year at a .192 clip, giving him a very effective 0.88 WHIP against them. Lefties fared a bit better by hitting .227 off him, with a still-effective 1.28 WHIP. The difference may be simply that Lynn didn’t trust his changeup enough to offer it at premium counts. Day games were surprisingly far more conducive to his skills, as he posted an amazing 1.26 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in 10 games under the sun, as hitters batted just .165 against him. Under the lights, Lynn pitched to a solid but less impressive 3.51 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 18 starts with hitters hitting .233 off of him. Lynn surprisingly pitched better at home with a 2.56 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and .195 OBA as opposed to road games with 2.90, 1.21 and .229. Lynn was at his best in April, as he posted an incredible 0.92 ERA in three starts, while August was the only month he posted an ERA of more than 4.00 (4.67).

Technically, Lynn doesn’t have the most advanced of repertoires — especially for a starting pitcher. A whopping 92.4% of his pitches this year were considered fastballs, but Lynn uses multiple variations to make it difficult for hitters to center them. According to Baseball Savant, 40.3% of Lynn’s offerings were the harder four-seamers, which averaged 94.5 mph and held hitters to just .185/.255/.297. Lynn’s second pitch, a cutter used 29.7% of the time, is more than a five mph slower than his four-seamer, and often works like a slider. While hitters fared better against this pitch, they still hit just .218/.268/.341 off it. Lynn’s third fastball variation, a sinker, was exhibited 18.6% of the time and was two ticks slower on average than his four-seams. Against this sinker, hitters fared better with a slash line of .243/.329/.404.

Aside from the fastball variations, Lynn did present two other pitches to hitters, but obviously not quite as often. A changeup, used 4.4% of the time and at an average 87.7 mph, didn’t provide the optimal speed variation with his four-seamer but was still quite effective, as opponents slashed just .148/.221 .259. Perhaps it was so effective because hitters really weren’t looking for it. Finally, his curveball was by far Lynn’s slowest pitch (82.1 mph) and least-used (2.9%), yet hitters hit .250 off it with nary an extra-base hit in the small sample size.

Because Lynn posted a 5.4 bWAR for the year, and considering each fWAR is worth approximately $7.7 million free agent dollars per FanGraphs, he produced a whopping net value of nearly $38.7 million. After subtracting his $10 million salary, he posted an incredible $31.58 million value this year for the White Sox. And in July, he signed a two-year extension for $38 million, which at this time still seems an excellent value.

What does the future have in store?

As for 2022 and beyond, Lynn will likely spearhead a rotation that would feature veterans and youngsters alike. The rotation as presently formulated would include Giolito, Cease, Michael Kopech and Dallas Keuchel. Reynaldo López would be the first option available in case of injury, while Triple-A options would include Jimmy Lambert, Jonathan Stiever, Emilio Vargas and Kade McClure.

When Lynn’s contract expires in 2024, there appears to be plenty of young right-handed talent to take Lynn’s spot in the rotation — most have not finished beyond Kannapolis, and are certainly not sure things to be ready by then. In the meantime, if Lynn can be a reasonable facsimile of his 2021 self, he’d be a candidate to park his Tonka Truck permanently in Chicago and extend his contract for another year or two.

As the saying goes, one can never have too much pitching. If the Sox end up trading Keuchel after the shutdown (or even if they don’t), the White Sox may be seeking additional reinforcements for depth purposes. This would especially be true because Kopech didn’t pitch all that many innings this year.

A list of still-unsigned, free agent righties will be provided in the next Deep Dive.

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