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Lance Lynn Is Ready to Be the White Sox’s Linchpin

The right-hander has been around the league long enough to know how rare it is to be on a championship-caliber team. And now, after undergoing a career revitalization, he’s ready to help a young Chicago team achieve its lofty goals.

Harrison Freeman

One night in November 2017, I was sitting around, idly thinking about that winter’s MLB free-agent class. Eventually I made it to the Baseball-Reference page of Lance Lynn, the then-30-year-old pitcher who was coming off a successful six-year tenure in St. Louis. Lynn had been a solid no. 3 or no. 4 starter on some good Cardinals teams, winning a World Series and even making an All-Star team in 2012. But MLB Trade Rumors ranked four pitchers ahead of him in that year’s free-agent class.

I’d always liked Lynn. My favorite pitcher of all time is Brandon Webb, so husky sinkerballers (as Lynn was then) turn me into a cartoon character smelling fresh pie. And while Lynn lacked the stuff to be a no. 1 starter—he came up in an age when the baseball world discovered and fell in love with a new José Fernández or Noah Syndergaard every four months—he was also available at a time when MLB was starting to underrate the reliability of pitchers who could make 30 good starts every year.

In late 2017, Lynn was just two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and he’d posted some ugly peripherals behind his solid surface stats. But other figures belied those concerns. In five full MLB seasons, Lynn had thrown at least 175 innings five times and only once failed to post a league-average ERA+. His underlying numbers had been iffy at times, but they don’t put FIP on the scoreboard. Lynn’s then-114 career ERA+ was better (at the time) than that of Patrick Corbin, Carlos Carrasco, Dallas Keuchel, or Gerrit Cole. It was also better than the career ERA+ of 16 Hall of Fame pitchers, including Nolan Ryan.

Lance Lynn wasn’t just OK—he was legitimately good. So I said so, over and over, for three years, as part of one of those running bits that isn’t actually a bit because it’s true. I took some crap for it, both on the internet at large and in the workplace; my long-running argument with Zach Kram about the merits of Lynn vs. James Paxton remains a major source of tension.

Then, last week, I found myself explaining all this to the man himself. The 10-year MLB veteran listened politely over the phone as I described the disconnect between perception and numbers, the arguments around the newsroom, and my bewilderment that nobody else had seemed to notice how good he was. Lynn backed me up, even if some of my coworkers wouldn’t.

“In my St. Louis days I was very undervalued,” Lynn said. “I think that comes with some of the staffs I pitched on, and the way that I was maybe not pushed to the front of things in the St. Louis media. That comes with being a younger kid, and you pitch with guys like Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.”

While undervalued may have described Lynn three years ago, the big right-hander is now coming off a two-year stint with the Texas Rangers in which he completely redefined his career. Since the start of the 2019 season, Lynn has maintained his characteristic reliability, leading all MLB pitchers in innings and tying Aaron Nola for the most starts (46). But he’s also tied for fifth in strikeouts (with Max Scherzer), 10th in ERA+, and second in both bWAR and wins above average over that span. The one-time afterthought has now finished fifth and sixth in AL Cy Young voting in the past two seasons. And when the White Sox traded for him in December, it constituted a major statement of intent for a team with championship aspirations.

Lynn’s much-celebrated transformation started in 2018. He waited until March of that year to ink a one-year contract with the Twins, who were apparently the only team at that time to share my bullish appraisal of Lynn’s potential as a front-end starter. That wait cost him important ramp-up time and eventually led to the only legitimately bad season of his career. But halfway through the year, something happened that shifted Lynn’s fortunes: He changed his foot position on the mound.

“I was off the first-base side of the rubber when I [started] with Minnesota, and I don’t know why or how I got that far over,” Lynn said. “It was just one of those things where, over time, I drifted that way.”

Rather than keeping Lynn where he was, then-Twins pitching coach Garvin Alston suggested that Lynn start pitching from the opposite side of the rubber. Lynn says the move allowed him to better engage his drive leg in his delivery and feel more comfortable on the mound. To quote another famous Minnesota coach, the legs feed the wolf. A pitcher like Lynn generates enormous power from his lower body, to say nothing of the stability required to pitch with confidence and precision. And this new position gave him both.

“Early in the year, it felt like I almost couldn’t even drive off the mound or drive from my back side, so you have a little bit of fear or reservation that something’s not right,” Lynn said. “When your legs feel strong underneath you, you’ve got a chance. When your legs don’t feel strong, that’s when you’ve got to worry about other things, and things can get out of whack.”

Unfortunately for the Twins, they traded Lynn to the Yankees about two starts after he had that breakthrough. (Alston was also replaced after the season.) Lynn’s ERA in New York was a run lower than it had been with Minnesota, but his tenure in pinstripes is remembered mostly for his part in the team’s disastrous 16-1 loss to Boston in Game 3 of the ALDS—if it’s remembered at all.

The following winter, Lynn put in work with Jay Lehr, the Indianapolis pitching coach who’s tutored him since middle school. Lynn says Lehr told him to stay on the third-base side of the rubber, and “‘Just let your stuff play, and let the natural things that got you here work.’ That’s what we went back to, and we’ve been at it since then.”

Lynn went on to sign a three-year deal with Texas in December 2018, and upon arriving at Rangers camp ahead of the 2019 season, he continued to mix up his approach. Back in St. Louis, Lynn had relied heavily on a sinker to induce ground balls and soft contact. But in Texas, he started throwing more four-seam fastballs, which gave him a fairly balanced three-fastball combination of four-seamer, sinker, and cutter that he could use to keep hitters off-balance. That Cerberus of fastballs isn’t as flashy as a knockout slider, but pitchers with a certain threshold of technique and intelligence can wield those pitches like a scimitar of righteousness.

This is also the textbook reaction to baseball’s swing plane revolution. For decades, pitchers were taught to throw sinking fastballs that would get batters to swing over top of the pitch and beat the ball into the ground for easy outs. Then, about five years ago, a few hitters started to realize they’d hit more home runs if they swung with a slight uppercut. This upward path brought the barrel of the bat squarely in line with the trajectory of the pitch. Now, more and more pitchers are abandoning the sinker for a four-seamer that stays up in the zone and confounds the uppercut.

But Lynn wasn’t adding something new to his game—he was merely going back to the type of pitcher he wanted to be all along. As a first-round pick out of the University of Mississippi in 2008, Lynn’s approach more closely resembled the one he’s using now. But he came of age professionally at a time when star pitching coaches used a one-size-fits-all approach. One coach would become synonymous with one killer pitch and teach it to the entire staff: Chicago’s Don Cooper with the cutter, Pittsburgh’s Ray Searage with the two-seamer, New York’s Dan Warthen with the slider. In St. Louis, under Dave Duncan, the sinker was the silver bullet, and that’s what Lynn learned.

“My whole life until I got to St. Louis, I was always pitching to the top of the zone, and I always knew I could strike people out up there, even though I didn’t throw 100 mph,” Lynn said. “When I got to St. Louis, they want you to sink it and cut it, and get quick outs. When I got back to the third-base side and using my four-seamer again, it actually felt really easy … I never lost my four-seamer, even though it wasn’t used quite as much.”

That first year in Texas, Lynn posted career highs in innings, ERA+, and K/9 ratio. Last season, Lynn stomped out of the gate with 18 consecutive scoreless innings and kept his ERA under 2.00 through the end of August. Unfortunately, that personal success didn’t carry over to the rest of the team. Lynn accounted for more than half of the team’s bWAR, and while he finished the year 6-3, the rest of the Rangers pitchers combined to go 16-35. Lynn says he expected to be traded this offseason, and president of baseball operations Jon Daniels told him he’d try to place the pitcher with a contender. So in December, Daniels shipped Lynn to the White Sox.

Lynn won his only World Series ring in 2011, as the youngest pitcher on a veteran Cardinals team that featured Carpenter, Yadier Molina, and Albert Pujols. And now he’s playing that Carpenter-like role on an up-and-coming White Sox team that’s expected to contend for the AL pennant. Lynn is one of four White Sox pitchers who earned Cy Young votes last year, along with Keuchel, Lucas Giolito, and fellow newcomer Liam Hendriks. But the club is best known for its astonishing collection of talented youngsters, including Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal, and Eloy Jiménez. Two of the hardest-throwing pitchers in MLB history—Michael Kopech and lefty Garrett Crochet—are current White Sox rookies.

Lynn’s decade of MLB experience makes him the exception to the rule on a roster loaded with potential young stars. But given all his ups and downs in the majors, Lynn knows that early success isn’t guaranteed to last.

“I won the World Series my rookie year and was in the NLCS the next year. Third season in the World Series, fourth season in the NLCS. And since then, I haven’t gotten past the divisional round when I’ve been in the playoffs,” Lynn said. “When you look back at it 10 years later and haven’t been able to have that opportunity on the same scale again, it makes you appreciate the luxury I had of being brought in with that awesome, awesome group. But it also shows how hard it is to get there. So when you get a chance, like we have this year, you have to enjoy and embrace it, because you never know when you’re going to get it again. You can’t just think it’s going to keep happening.”

Lynn appreciates the balance of this White Sox team, with its combination of pitching and offense, youth and experience, power and finesse. “You’ve got to have a little bit of everything to have a championship-caliber team,” Lynn said. “Some of the best teams in baseball score a lot of runs and then don’t pitch, or they’re too young on one side. But I think that if you have guys who have been through different things, that goes a long way.”

While guys like Lynn, Keuchel, Hendriks, and Adam Eaton have plenty of playoff experience on their own, nobody on the team has more history—for better or for worse—than new manager Tony La Russa. Lynn is the only member of the White Sox who has played for La Russa in the past, for two-thirds of a season in 2011. But Lynn says that since La Russa has been out of the game for so long, he can’t be too specific with his younger teammates about what to expect.

“That was 10 years ago,” Lynn said. “I’ve told the guys from the get-go that Tony is all about one thing: Do what you’ve got to do to help your teammates and try to win each game that you play. If you do that, he’s got no problem with you.”

As for Lynn’s part, he still views his contribution primarily in terms of quantity of innings. Pitchers who can throw 200 innings a year are rarer than ever. Setting aside seasons shortened by work stoppages and global pandemics, the four years in which the fewest pitchers threw 200 innings were 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Lynn is cognizant of his unusual ability to take pressure off his teammates by shouldering more of the workload, noting that the teams who make a splash in the playoffs often have a few guys who can eat up innings. And at this point in the spring, he’s much more focused on his ability to do that than his impending free agency. That’s not because he’s unaware of the impact a good walk year could have on his financial future, but because he learned the hard way that worrying can be counterproductive.

“When I look back to the first time I had a chance to go into free agency, I made it a bigger deal than it really is,” he said. “If you just go out and do your job, you’re going to be all right. I’ve come to terms with the fact that nothing else matters, except for the next start. I try to keep it simple. The more you try to control, the more the game will knock you back. … When you try to control it and it doesn’t go the way you think, then why’d you waste all that time trying to control something you can’t?”

Throughout our conversation, Lynn kept coming back to some version of that same thought: identifying and capitalizing on the things that are within his power to control, and letting go of everything else. On the mound, he’s found new life by returning to an approach in which he feels most comfortable. He’s finally being allowed to be who he is, and it seems to be working out pretty well—whether anyone notices or not.

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