Just three starts into the season and Lance Lynn has removed all doubt on who is the ace of the talented Texas Rangers starting rotation.
Entering the 2020 season the Texas Rangers rotation looked like one built on having multiple good starting pitchers in lieu of the traditional “ace, two, three, etc.” concept. At least, to those outside the Rangers’ circle of media and fans that’s how it was portrayed. However, to those followed the club closely in 2019, there was a strong belief that this was a team with an elite frontline starter that could match up against almost any top arm in the league. That elite, frontline starter was Lance Lynn and make no mistake, he is an ace in Major League Baseball.
Lynn is just three starts in to his 2020 campaign and he’s already removed any doubt on who the top ace is in a talented Texas Rangers starting rotation. For those that need their memory jogged though, Lynn has now thrown 18 1/3 innings on the year and has allowed just a single run which came in the 7th inning of his Tuesday night start against the Oakland A’s. Opponents have just six hits against him and have struck out 24 times, good for an 11.78 strikeouts per nine innings rate which, if it held all season, would be the best of his career by over a strikeout. His walk rate is higher than he might like, at 4.42 per nine, but he’s been nothing short of dominant for the Rangers this year and looks even better than the Lynn we saw in 2019.
Last year’s Lance Lynn flew under the radar for a lot of the season. Not quite as sexy a name as Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg, Lynn is labeled a workhorse on the mound, which doesn’t always evoke the image of a Cy Young-caliber ace. Yet still, Lynn finished last season with a higher fWAR than those three names above including last year’s AL Cy Young winner in Verlander. In fact, only Jacob DeGrom (2018 & 2019 NL Cy Young winner) and Gerrit Cole (2019 AL Cy Young runner-up) finished the season with a higher fWAR among qualified pitchers than Lynn. The workhorse wasn’t just good last year, he was elite.
But coming into this season, Lynn wasn’t considered even an outside Cy Young candidate. His breakout 2019 campaign cited as an anomaly by many and no doubt partially due to the Texas Rangers mediocrity on the field, was largely overlooked. But the numbers he’s putting up this season can’t be overlooked. Which begs the question…Can he make a legitimate push for Cy Young consideration?
Role of a Shortened Season
It’s impossible for Lynn to keep up this kind of pace during the remainder of the season so you will see his stats tick up over the next few weeks. But in the shortened format of this season, getting a start like Lynn has is crucial. Last season, Lynn made 33 starts for the Texas Rangers but with the season cut to just 37% of its normal length, that equates to just 12 starts this season. If the fractions hypothetically hold up, that means Lynn has already made a quarter of his starts for the year.
Another way to look at it is that Lynn has made 1/3 o
f the Texas Rangers starts so far this season, three of nine. That pace isn’t sustainable obviously but assuming he falls somewhere in the middle, Lynn likely has 10-12 starts remaining this season, probably closer to the 10 side. All that hypothetical math essentially shows that Lynn is well into the amount of innings he’ll throw this year and still sits with a 0.49 ERA and .100 batting average against. Those numbers will help drastically drag down his future numbers considering the share of his projected innings they represent.
Contenders with Strong Starts
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Lynn isn’t the only starter who is off to a strong start and that deserves some note too. Shane Bieber of the Indians was great for Cleveland last year and has arguably been the best starter in the game so far this year with 21 2/3 innings pitched through three starts, a 14.54 strikeouts per nine rate and a 0.83 ERA. He’s a pitcher that is likely to back up his blistering start with more success making him a favorite in the AL Cy Young race.
Bieber’s teammate Zach Plesac joins him as a talented pitcher off to a solid start. He’s got two starts under his belt with a 1.80 ERA and a 0.5 fWAR which trails only Lynn (0.7) and Bieber (1.0). Plesac was a bit of a breakout name last season and has looked all the bit of an emerging ace so far this year.
Any Cy Young list in the AL right now would be remiss if it didn’t mention Gerrit Cole. Universally considered one of the top arms in baseball and now the highest paid following last offseason, Cole is off to a 3-0 start with his new club, the New York Yankees. The AL Cy Young runner-up last year, Cole has a 2.55 ERA so far this year and opponents are hitting just .163 against him. While not as stunning as the numbers Lynn and Bieber have produced so far this year, Cole operates with the benefit of knowing that this is likely where he’ll float most of the season. His strikeout rate is down to 8.15 per nine which is surprising considering he struck out 326 hitters last season, but you’d expect that to trend up as the year goes on.
Where Does Lynn Stand Now?
As it goes right now, if you were turning in a ballot for Cy Young in the AL, Shane Bieber is probably your choice. But there is a strong case to be made for Lynn and he likely is the majority of people’s second choice. With the aforementioned shortening of the 2020 season, being in this spot nearly 20% of the way through the season puts Lynn in a strong spot. He also benefits from his notable ability to go deep into starts which will allow him to keep driving that ERA lower and that strikeout total up.
Going against him though is that ever-evasive label of being a star and an ace. Maybe it’s his almost exclusive fastball usage, nearly 80% of his pitches this season between his four-seam and cutter. It could just be a name recognition thing based on what Lynn has been and what he’s expected to do. He also isn’t likely to rack up the wins like other top considerations like Bieber and Cole. Whatever the case, it feels like he’s still considered a real dark horse. But with last year’s numbers and this year’s start, he should be one of the contending names.