The game of baseball in MLB is moving away from fastballs. The times keep changing, and this being one of them. The 4-seam fastball used to be the bedrock of every pitcher’s arsenal. But now, that’s not always the case, and with some pitchers, they try to hide their fastball amongst their other pitches as best they can.

In my look back at the end of 2019 here, I pointed out that strikeouts and home runs set new records that season. Not only that, but slider usage also reached a new all-time high. In 2015, fastballs accounted for 56.8% of pitches thrown. In 2021, fastballs are on pace to be only 51% of pitches thrown. The slider? On pace for a new high of 19.7%. Pitchers are putting more emphasis on their secondary pitches and, for the most part, shying away from the fastball.

But one man stands in the gap. One man defies the new rules of engagement. That man is perennial Razzboi swoon, starting pitcher Lance Lynn. For the last 2 years now, less than 10% of his pitch mix has included non-fastballs. And since returning from Tommy John in 2017, none of his pitches has included a slider. Lance cares not for your new-fangled conventions.

What he did do was introduce the cutter in 2017. The cutter can have similar movement to the slider, and depending on the pitcher it can have a similar grip. But what the cutter does is late movement (disguised pitch) rather than sweeping movement. And what he learned was that the late movment paired well with his 4-seam fastball and sinker.

Over time, Lance perfected and tweaked his pitch mix a little more each time. The cutter usage grew and grew each year proportional with his waistline overtaking his 2-seamer and pulling back on the 4-seamer. But why? For what purpose was the cutter being featured at an exponential rate?

Season Age vLHB vRHB
2017 30 0.245 0.203
2018 31 0.299 0.239
2019 32 0.267 0.219
2020 33 0.182 0.229
2021 34 0.211 0.167

Lance Lynn had a problem, and that problem was lefthanded batters. In general, lefties tend to pose a challenge for an RHP such as our guy. Righthanded offerings from the mound flow toward them with better sight on the release hand. Before TJ this was also an issue but with a rebuilt arm he needed another way.

To get to the point, Lance needed some deception to get the jump on their vantage point. Lance needed tunneling that could limit the power coming from the left side. Over the first half of his career, on top of the AVG, Lefties were SLG almost 100 pts higher against him. He needed to drop their pop. That’s where the cutter comes in.

The increased cutter usage along with some post-surgery velocity gains was just what he needed to take the heat off his 4-seamer and sinker where the slider had failed (which wasn’t a very good pitch).  His adjustments these last 2 years have finally started to neutralize lefty bats.

Here is Lance Lynn using the cutter (which is more of a sinking cutter) to tie-up Candelario for strike 3. His specific brand of cutter darts in and down to LHB, which makes it very hard to hit especially if they crowding the plate like they did before he had this as an option. Before, they could get full plate coverage against him by standing close and reaching to the opposite side. Now he can use that to his advantage.

And now it can even be used against RHB too. He can go in and out to both LHB and RHB now, increasing the options and combos he can attack with. Here’s one of those:

Why does it all work together? Pitch tunneling. By synching the release point and trajectory, the pitches start off looking the same and then fan out in different directions as they approach the hitter. And since they are each “fastballs,” the movement comes late. This is what I mean:

All three work in conjunction together and look the same (at first). Lance Lynn has finally become the best version of himself after mastering these 3 pitches.

Season Age IP K/9 BB/9 HR/FB ERA xERA SwStr%
2017 30 186.1 7.39 3.77 14.2% 3.43 4.04 9.0%
2018 31 156.2 9.25 4.37 11.3% 4.77 4.03 10.0%
2019 32 208.1 10.63 2.55 9.9% 3.67 3.38 12.5%
2020 33 84.0 9.54 2.68 13.8% 3.32 3.28 11.2%
2021 34 84.2 10.52 2.98 8.4% 2.02 2.82 12.7%

Notice his stat chart, each year he made improvements in one area while working on others, and sometimes a step back in another. Despite that though, there is a net gain across the board from where he began. This is the proof in the pudding. The spoils of his toils you might say (2020 being kinda fluky for obvious reasons). Lynn has transformed himself into a bonafide ace.

We could end there, but this isn’t just a piece on understanding why Lance Lynn is successful with fastballs. This is also about spotting trends with pitchers, like Lynn, who are addressing a weakness in their game to get better. When we can spot these changes, like in Lynn’s career, we can get an idea of whether guys are on their way to “breaking out.”

A Couple of weeks ago I gave you my dive into Taijuan Walker here. He seems to have found the same thing Lance did but in reverse. He was already strong against LHB but needed a better way to attack RHB which had always been his problem. The 2-seamer was, and hopefully will continue to be, the answer.

Each pitcher has certain inherent weaknesses. Some like Lynn and Walker have very clear-cut problems found in their splits. And many times, key pitch mix changes can be found in those splits as well. When you see the diagram at the top show a pitcher’s usage rate, it’s looking at the whole. It’s great and wonderful like I was able to use it above. However, Lynn is also an example of why that’s just skimming the surface.

Notice how from last year to this year, he not only has increased the total usage of his cutter from 22.2% to 31.5%, but also that he is throwing them more to RHB. He increased the righty distribution from 144/710 = 20.2% up to 241/693 = 34.8%. That’s an increase of 14.6% just to RHB. He is more confident in the pitch and now feels comfortable using it more against everyone to “keep them off the scent” of his primary 4-seam fastball.

That’s how you can tell a pitcher is ready to take the next step. When they make very directed changes in their pitch mix and arsenal to address a specific weakness in their game. They don’t always succeed the first time though. Lynn took 2 or so years before it started paying dividends with the added difficulty of coming back from TJ, regaining his velocity. But the signs were there, and he kept adding to it. It doesn’t always happen suddenly.

Thanks for joining me on this ride today and maybe you picked up on something that can help you find some pitching diamonds in the rough of your own in the future. Stay razzy.

If you want more Coolwhip to top off your baseball experience, fantasy or otherwise, you can follow me on Twitter: @CoolwhipRB.

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1 year ago

4×4 no K’s too wierd ehhhh? GOMBER or FEDDE . Rest of year?

1 year ago

Great breakdown. He is smart and nasty. Great combo for an ace.

Dong Show
Dong Show
1 year ago

As a LL owner in my dynasty league, I really thank you and appreciate a post like this.

Great job Coolwhip!

1 year ago

Good stuff as always, CW. It ain’t just all show with the graphics and no go. Plenty under the hood