keyboard_arrow_uptop

For as unpredictable as April was—the Mets and Astros are in first place! A.J. Pierzynski is out-hitting Mike Trout! Devon Travis is the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year!—it's refreshing and, in a sense, validating that some things we held as near-facts remained true. Take Lance Lynn.

When it comes to permitting stolen bases, Lynn has developed into one of the game's least generous pitchers. He hasn't allowed double-digit steals in any of his three full big-league seasons, and in 2014 he conceded one stolen base on four attempts over a career-high 203 innings pitched. That performance landed Lynn second on the leaderboard for Takeoff Rate Above Average—a new Prospectus metric designed to judge how effective a pitcher is at encumbering basestealers, adjusted for myriad variables. Evidently, a second-place finish wasn't enough for Lynn: he hasn't witnessed so much as a stolen-base attempt through his first four starts in 2015.

To christen TRAA, and to better understand one of the league's least-heralded starters, let's examine just how Lynn goes about watering the basepaths.

Yadier Molina
Any conversation about Lynn's hold on the running game must begin, as St. Louis things are wont to, with Molina. Because Molina is widely held as one of the few backstops who can chain and padlock the basepaths on his own, you might figure Lynn is of lesser importance than his catcher. Adam Wainwright (fourth) and Michael Wacha's (14th) favorable ranks on the TRAA leaderboard only enhance such suspicions. Yet there are two arguments working against that hypothesis: 1) TRAA takes the catcher into account and 2) Lynn's performance without Molina is quality:

Lynn With and Without Molina, 2011-2015

Split

INN

SBA/9

CS%

With Molina

436

0.50

63%

Without Molina

202.3

0.67

33%

Lynn's metrics of note—stolen-base attempts per nine innings and caught-stealing rate—decline without Molina, though not to ridiculous depths. The difference between the splits amounts to an extra stolen-base attempt every six games—or 1.5 extra steals per 30 starts. Additionally, compare Lynn's Molina-free numbers to Clayton Kershaw's rates since 2012 (0.57 SBA/9, 48 percent CS%), and Lynn stacks up more favorably than you'd expect given Kershaw's historic 2014 and killer pickoff move.

This is not to knock or downplay Molina's impact on the running game. Watch Lynn and you'll see Molina do little things here and there to help out. For instance, there was a sequence during a start against the Brewers where Scooter Gennett reached ahead of his pitcher. Molina knew the situation at hand, and knew Gennett might get liberal with his lead in expectation of a bunt. So what did he do? He faked the family's patented backpick to keep Gennett closer to the bag.

Factor in Molina's expertise on when to step off, throw over, or pitch out, and there's no questioning the notion that he deserves some of the credit for Lynn's success. But Lynn's game nonetheless includes some steal-stopping traits that go beyond his catcher's influence.

Pickoff move
Since Kershaw's name has already been invoked, let's begin deconstructing Lynn by focusing on his pickoff move. Logic states a pitcher who puts the clamp down on opposing baserunners should feature a respectable move, and Lynn doesn't disappoint in that regard.

Lynn employs a controversial trick known as the knee pop—essentially, his front knee moves before any other part of his body. The move's effectiveness stems from how baserunners are taught to use a pitcher's front leg as a determinant on whether he's headed to the plate, while its controversy is rooted in the sense that it should be called a balk. Most of the game's top right-handed pickoff artists employ the trick, so it's not surprising to learn that Lynn does, too . . . except Lynn is not a top pickoff artist. Whereas Johnny Cueto is Monet with his 21 career pickoffs, Lynn is more akin to your five-year-old nephew who just discovered macaroni with his two pickoffs—both, oddly, coming against the Brewers:


This isn't a case where Lynn banished two baserunners to the dugout last April and benefited all year from scouting reports warning of his quick feet and balky move, either. Instead Lynn's most recent pickoff came on May 18, 2013—or, obviously, almost two years ago. Can a pitcher's move be categorized as above average if he never picks anyone off? Of course. Remember, the top priority is keeping a runner closer to the bag; the outs are simply a happy byproduct.

Speed to the plate

Lynn's catcher and pickoff move cut into basestealers' leads, and it's a good thing because he's not as quick to the plate as you'd think. By now, everyone knows how this works. Teams want their pitchers checking in at better than 1.3 seconds from first move to the ball reaching the mitt. From there, the catcher has 1.8 seconds to pop up, transfer, and throw to the receiving middle infielder in order to catch a grade-80 runner. Most runners aren't grade-80, so an average or quicker pitcher can give his catcher and infielder tenths of a second of leeway to do their parts.

Despite a team-wide emphasis on getting quicker to the plate during the spring, as Derrick Goold reported, it's hard to tell much of a difference between Lynn in 2015 (left) and 2014 (right):


What you see up there is counting frames—one second plus 11 frames, or about 1.35 seconds. So Lynn hasn't quite cracked the 1.2-1.3 range. But there is one other speed-related aspect to consider.

Pitch selection
For as much emphasis as placed on time to the plate, we almost never talk about the pitch itself. It's an oversight, because the pitch type can make a difference—it's part of why non-Dickey knuckleballers tend to struggle holding runners. Fortunately for Lynn, his fastball-heavy approach helps him with the task at hand. In addition to finishing second in TRAA last season, Lynn has the second-highest rate of fastball usage among starters since 2012. Coincidentally, he trailed the same guy in both categories: Bartolo Colon. That doesn't mean Lynn didn't nudge Colon in a few noteworthy splits:

Split/Pitcher

Colon

Lynn

FB% Overall

86%

84%

FB% Runner on 1B Only

83%

89%

FB% Runner(s) On

85%

86%

FB% Bases Empty

86%

83%

What kind of advantage is there in throwing a fastball versus a breaking ball when a base-stealing threat is on first? Consider that Lynn's average fastball velocity is 94 mph, while his top-used breaking ball is a 78-mph curveball. The difference in arrival time to the plate is less than a tenth of a second, which within itself isn't a huge deal. Yet the fastball also presents the backstop with an easier catch, leading to fewer mistakes or delays when it comes to receiving and transferring the ball. Additionally, the fastball's trajectory and location is more predictable, thereby allowing the catcher to cheat when he sees the runner is going or has strayed too far toward second base. And a breaking ball or offspeed pitch should almost never be up in the zone, while a fastball may, giving the catcher even more advantage.

Everything adds up—from the catcher to pickoff move, the speed to the plate to the pitch selection—to the sum of parts that makes Lynn one of the toughest targets for opposing baserunners.

Special thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller and Rob McQuown for visual and research assistance.