Perhaps the most interesting thing to happen at the trade deadline today was the thing that didn’t happen.
While the Padres were plenty active throughout, and a flurry of activity did occur during the day on Monday, the Rangers surprised the baseball world when they decided not to trade Lance Lynn. The Braves, Dodgers, White Sox and Yankees had all expressed varying levels of interest throughout the process, but all ultimately thought the price was too high.
On one hand, it makes sense why the price was high. Lynn’s value very well could be at an all-time high right now. Coming off of a season where he was the third-most valuable pitcher in the game, Lynn has continued his newfound dominance here in 2020. In 51 1⁄3 innings over eight starts, he’s pitched to a 1.93 ERA and a 3.52 FIP. His strikeout-to-walk numbers are slightly worse year-over-year, but there’s no real concern to be had. The bottom line is simple: Lynn has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last two-and-a-half years, and the 2020 trade deadline was a prime opportunity to deal him.
The Rangers came in as clear sellers, and given MLB’s expanded postseason and the push of more peripheral teams to make upgrades, a seller’s market did develop. Not every trade reflected this, but with a lack of true high-quality arms available — Mike Clevinger, Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling, and Mike Minor, the starters traded today, all have kinks that need to be worked out — he would have likely brought in quite a bit of talent in return. With that said, though, it was notable that top-flight contenders like the Dodgers and Yankees remained relatively quiet on Monday, likely due to the randomness introduced as a result of the three-game first round playoff series. The advantage to getting a top seed just isn’t as clear this year, and that could have been why those teams were more reluctant to deal their better prospects, leaving Texas in a tough spot.
So, the Rangers opted not to deal him, and, really, there wasn’t a ton of pressure to do so. An offseason trade could prove to be more lucrative for Texas, and that option is still there: Lynn is playing out the second year of his three-year, $30 million deal, meaning that a team could still acquire him this winter and get Lynn at one-year, $10 million. But with the playoff format seemingly going back to normal next year, there may be fewer overall suitors, depending how this year plays out. However, those who may be interested — like the Dodgers and Yankees — could be willing to give up more later on. The uncertainty of 2020 likely played a significant role in these discussions.
Of course, there’s still the chance that Lynn’s on-field performance dips. No team was going to acquire the 33-year-old righty for his 1.93 ERA, especially when the .197 BABIP allowed and 88.4 percent left-on-base rate scream regression.
The question, then, becomes: Are there any legitimate signs that Lynn is worse this year than he was the year before? The strikeout numbers have dropped by 0.4 percentage points — nothing to worry about. The walks have ticked up slightly, but that, too, is probably sample size driven:
The rest of Lynn’s underlying numbers look just about the same, if not better. He’s getting fewer groundballs this year than last, but he’s replaced some of that with a few more pop-ups. His xwOBA allowed (.277) represents a 15-point improvement, and his xwOBA allowed on contact (.341) represents a near 30-point improvement. Hitters have tried to square him up, but as mentioned, he’s getting them to pop it up or hit lazy fly balls. When hitters put the ball in the air against Lynn, they’ve done so with just an 89.3 mph average exit velocity, putting him in the 75th percentile league-wide. His xwOBA allowed on these events has been just .381, ranking in the 95th percentile. This is a skill that Lynn had last year as well, but the slight uptick in pop-ups this season has made him even better in that regard.
On a pitch-by-pitch basis, his fastball still looks great, averaging 94.0 mph and 2,492 rpm. He has continued to throw it up in the zone, which is exactly where a pitch with those characteristics should go:
The only thing Lynn is doing different this year is that he’s thrown his cutter slightly more than his sinker. While both pitches saw mid-to-high teens usage rates in 2019, and do so again in 2020, he’s swapped the two in the pecking order. He’s throwing the cutter just shy of 20 percent of the time this year, and it’s already been worth +5.1 runs above-average, a career-high, according to data from Pitch Info. In 26 batted ball events thus far, hitters have put up just a .118 batting average and a .194 wOBA against it. The sinker is still decent and does generate ground balls — hitters have a -9 degree launch angle versus the pitch — but it is definitely worse than the cutter overall.
The quick overview of Lynn’s 2020 does suggest that there are few concerns to be had about anything beyond normal regression, which does bode well for the Rangers in their decision to keep him. However, given that there is a decent cast of arms in the 2020-21 free agent class, they may not face the same timing luck they did at the deadline. Trevor Bauer, Robbie Ray, Marcus Stroman, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka, among others, are all free agents this offseason, and while each of those arms certainly come with their individual set of question marks, it does dilute the market for pitching overall.
So did the Rangers make an unwise decision to keep Lance Lynn? Of course, only time will tell. But, I think it wasn’t as irrational as initially thought. He’s on a very team-friendly contract, even as he enters his his age-34 season next year. Plus, there’s been no indication that he’s any different this year than last, when he was among the best pitchers in the game. The Rangers still have time to move him, and if they didn’t get what they wanted now, it’s still possible they get a good return — from higher profile suitors — at some point down the road.
Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.