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Has Lance Lynn has solved the times-through-the-order penalty?

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His outcomes have actually been better as he gets deeper into a game, but it’s not clear whether Lynn is doing something different or just getting lucky.

St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Lance Lynn had a very good start against the Pirates on Monday, going seven innings with only three hits, one walk, no runs, and five strikeouts. Lynn faced every member of the Pirates order three times, and stayed effective throughout; he allowed only one of his hits and racked up two of his strikeouts on his third go-around through the order.

That might seem surprising, because pitchers generally get substantially worse each time they face a batter in a single game. The times through the order penalty has been well documented, and it’s what underlies a lot of the aggressive bullpen usage we increasingly see teams employing. But Lynn’s performance on Monday shouldn’t have been that surprising, because he’s apparently not subject to the TTO penalty.

Alex Crisafulli of Viva El Birdos first (to my knowledge) pointed this out last Friday. Lynn, rather than getting worse each subsequent time he faces an opponent, gets better. Over the course of his career as a starter, per Baseball-Reference, the Cardinals righty has yielded a .713 OPS when facing batters for the first time in a game, a .744 OPS the second time, and a .616 OPS the third or fourth time. Nor is this a fluke of sample size, as this trend has held through 963 batters faced by Lynn on the third or fourth time through the order.

But it’s not clear what exactly Lynn is doing to generate those better outcomes. His peripherals look more like what we’d expect, with his strikeout rate falling from 24.4 percent on the first time to 20.9 percent on the second and 21.0 on the third and beyond, while his walk rate increases from 7.3 percent to 9.1 percent to 9.9 percent.

Instead, the change seems to stem from the kind of contact Lynn allows on his third time through the order. His BABIP falls steeply each subsequent round, from .336 to .320 to .276, and his home run rate also drops, from 1.7 percent to 2.3 percent to 1.3 percent.

Of course, BABIP and home run rate are very vulnerable to fluctuations, so while it sure looks like there’s a clear trend here, it’s not out of the question that this is all luck on Lynn’s part.

And that possibility is supported by the fact that Lynn doesn’t seem to change his approach much as he gets deeper into a game. His pitch usage is almost completely stable:

As is his ability to generate groundballs on each pitch:

His velocity has remained remarkably stable as well, which might indicate that he’s less susceptible to fatigue compared to other pitches as they go deeper into games. But while that could explain why he was getting more strikeouts, Lynn isn’t blowing away batters in the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings, as we saw above; he’s getting better outcomes when the ball is put into play. Stable velocity doesn’t seem like it can explain that.

Nor does his pitch location change much; these charts show where each of his pitches has been vertically and horizontally located on average. (The changeup and curveball go below the chart in the vertical one, but neither of them are too far off the scale, at -1.03 and -1.15.)

On the one hand, it seems bizarre that we’re unable to find some kind of explanation for Lynn’s bucking of the trend. He’s had demonstrably better results on his third-plus times through the order, and he’s maintained that performance for about a full season’s worth of batters. It seems highly unlikely that it’s all just a fluke.

On the other hand, there’s a reason we usually don’t see pitchers whip out some secret weapon of an approach on their third time through the order. If a pitcher threw only fastballs the first two times through the order, and only broke out their offspeed and breaking pitches on the third time, then they’d probably avoid the TTO penalty too, but at what cost? If Lynn’s bucking of the trend is the result of a better approach later in the game, then he should adopt that approach early in the game as well, and be subject to the penalty but with better performance across the board.

This isn’t everything I’d want to look at if I was going to answer this question with total certainty. I’d love to analyze Lynn’s pitch sequencing on each time through the order, but like many of the relevant variables that a pitcher could change, the data isn’t available. We’re left to guess based on what we have, and what we have isn’t showing much.

Ultimately, it’s hard to be certain exactly what we’re seeing here. Lynn is clearly an outlier when it comes to this aspect of baseball orthodoxy. Whether his oddity is the product of intent or just dumb luck is not as clear.

. . .

Henry Druschel is one of the Managing Editors of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.