Cards reaping benefits of letting Lynn be himself
Restricted in previous years, right-hander poised to succeed down the stretch
ATLANTA -- Pitching in the shadow of Adam Wainwright and with considerably less fanfare than the youngest two members of the Cardinals' rotation, Lance Lynn welcomes his place as the oft overlooked.
Lynn is the rotation misfit, of sorts, not all that interested in conformity or uniformity, but preferring to pitch uninhibited. The less he's noticed, the less he feels bombarded by opinions, the better positioned he believes he is for success.
"When you have the luxury of them letting them be yourself," Lynn said, "it's easier to find yourself. That's just the process of getting to know each other."
Lynn has spent the early years of his Major League career evolving through perpetual self-discovery. He pitched in relief as a rookie on a 2011 team managed by Tony La Russa. With the next season came a new manager, coaching staff and role. Lynn arrived at Spring Training told to prepare to pitch the eighth inning. He left as the team's fifth starter.
Lynn went on to win 18 games and earn an All-Star invite that season despite feeling "like I was behind that whole year and playing catchup." Success rolled over into a 15-win season in 2013, though Lynn said he rarely felt comfortable.
First, Lynn was asked to temper his on-field emotions, as the Cards were concerned that his demeanor could be misinterpreted as disrespect shown toward an opponent, umpire or even teammates. Then there was a request to drop weight, something that left Lynn, in his opinion, without the strength to battle through the late summer months at his best.
It's been a few years of trial and error, as Lynn describes it, all leading to a 2014 season in which he now feels comfortable in his own skin. He's content breaking the mold and being left alone, the latter of which Lynn takes as an indication that the Cardinals believe he's earned himself some autonomy.
"I guess in the game of baseball, to be young and be considered a veteran is a good thing," Lynn said. "That means you have done things at a pretty high level where they expect certain things out of you and don't expect you to be a young guy."
That's not to suggest that the learning curve is over. Lynn doesn't have to look far in his own clubhouse to watch how Wainwright continues to evolve in an effort to tap into other ways to thrive. At 26, Lynn is still far from that point.
Lynn has proven himself dominant in March/April, amassing a 12-1 record in 15 career starts. The only player (minimum of 10 starts) with a better first-month winning percentage is Babe Ruth.
But to take another step forward in his career, Lynn has to sustain that. He's faltered the last two summers, with August (1-5, 5.75 ERA) being a particularly trying month for the right-hander. Lynn's expectation is to heed those lessons learned from 2012 and '13 to get his body right this time around.
"Hopefully this year, knowing what I'm going to get into and trying to get as strong as I possibly could, when I get into those months where it's warm out and I have a lot of pitches, a lot of innings start to build up that I'm in a position to where I can get through those and not have the fatigue factor," Lynn said.
"Lance is a competitor, and he's getting better in a lot of facets," added manager Mike Matheny. "Sometimes that comes from some struggles."
The right-hander eclipsed the 200-innings mark for the first time last season and now sees that figure as an expectation, not a goal. Lynn has thrown 41 through his first seven outings, a start that, if he were to match last season's total of 33 appearances, would put Lynn at 193 innings.
One who has long gotten stronger the deeper he pitches into games, Lynn hasn't gotten much opportunity to showcase that durability yet this year. He's pitched into the seventh just twice.
"If they know they're going to get 30-plus starts from you every year and 200 innings and below a 4.00 ERA, a lot of teams would take that, especially as a [No.] 3, 4 or 5 guy," Lynn said. "But I don't want to just be a 200-inning guy. And I don't want to be just a 30-start guy. As the process of going further, you learn how to pitch and become stronger and better and more confident. That's when you can make that step. I think that going into your second, third, fourth season, that's when you see guys either make that step or they are who they are. If I am who I am, then so be it. But I'm always trying to get better."
The constant through Lynn's circuitous path of self-understanding, though, has been that the team wins when he is on the mound. His 37 wins through since the start of the 2012 season is second in the National League only to Wainwright, who has one more during that span.
Lynn's peripheral numbers don't stand up to Wainwright's and his run support has been notably generous, but the Cards are not as apt to dismiss the number in that win column as are some sabermatricians.
"This game comes down to wins and losses," Matheny said. "That's what we're preaching in here. And a guy who finds a way to win, to me, needs to be given a lot of credit, because that's the ultimate goal for us. Whether you're getting a lot of support or throwing a shutout, one way or another, you're finding a way to get it done, and Lance has done that."
Lynn's objective now is to put more behind those wins and to give St. Louis another reliable six-month workhorse in the rotation. He has to prove himself ready to be left alone, capable of guiding his own career without interruption.
"When other teams see my name on the probables for today, I want to make them think, 'Hey, we have to do a lot of things right to score runs off him. It's going to be a tough game,'" Lynn said. "And when our offense comes in, I want them to see that I'm pitching and believe they have a chance to win. That's what I care about."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.