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The Yankees are betting that Lance Lynn has turned a corner

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The Yankees’ trade for another starting pitcher looks curious at first blush. What’s the deal?

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Boston Red Sox v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Brian Cashman and the Yankees are trying to put Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners to shame. Last week, they added to the bullpen with Zach Britton, and to the rotation with J.A. Happ. They accrued international bonus money after trading Chasen Shreve and Caleb Frare. Continuing apace, they sent Adam Warren to the Mariners, then traded Tyler Austin and Luis Rijo for Lance Lynn.

The theory behind Lynn’s acquisition is the most difficult to discern. Almost every other move was easily explained at face value. The Yankees patched a hole in the rotation with Happ, and doubled down on a strength by adding Britton. The international money they gained was enough to sign a top prospect. Adding Lynn, though? That is tougher to parse.

For now, the rotation is full. Unless there is another shoe to drop, with someone like Sonny Gray sent out the door, Lynn will be in a swingman/sixth starter role. Yet the 31-year-old right-hander is in the midst of the worst season of his career. Lynn entered the year with a pedigree as a solid mid-rotation starter, but has a 5.10 ERA and 4.73 FIP across 20 starts in 2018.

What’s the rationale here? Why would the Yankees trade away Warren and replace him with an apparent downgrade in Lynn? Perhaps what the Yankees see in Lynn is a pitcher who turned a corner midseason.

Maybe Lynn is something of a pitching version of Neil Walker. Like Walker, Lynn signed well after spring training had commenced. Also like Walker, Lynn struggled mightily out of the gate. And like Walker, who has a .955 OPS in July, maybe the Yankees will be happy to have Lynn now that he’s shaken off the rust.

Despite arriving to camp late, Lynn opened the season with the Twins. He was roughed up in his first start of the year, giving up five runs in four innings to the Pirates, walking six. Things got worse from there. By mid-May, after lasting just three innings in a start against the Cardinals, Lynn’s ERA stood at 7.47 ERA.

Lynn shut out the Tigers across 6.2 innings in his next start, though, and has been just fine since. In a dozen starts since that stinker against St. Louis, Lynn has maintained a 3.74 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .689 OPS. He has struck out 59 batters and walked 33. There’s nothing great about those numbers, but they’re totally serviceable.

He’s performed better in just a small sample, however. It would be easier to believe that Lynn has actually turned things around if there was some indication that his underlying performance had improved. Luckily, it does seem that Lynn has thrown the ball better recently, earning that lower ERA.

First, Lynn has ironed out the control problems he struggled with at the beginning of the year. Courtesy of FanGraphs, here is a rolling average of Lynn’s walk rate and his zone rate in 2018:

Lynn walked over seven batters per nine over his first nine starts, but has found the strike zone a bit more since. Moreover, his velocity has consistently ticked up all year, per Baseball Savant:

It’s not a smooth line upward, but after bottoming out at 92 mph on his four-seamer in April, Lynn sat nearly at 95 mph in his most recent start. In fact, Lynn’s fastball velocity could be a reason for cautious optimism; his velocity is way up from 2017, when his four-seamer sat at 92.3 mph for the year.

His batted ball profile has also improved mightily. Lynn’s groundball rate is up to 53% over his past 12 starts, compared to 47% before. His BABIP has fallen from .394 to .281 across those time frames, probably thanks to a decrease in both line drive rate and hard contact rate. No matter how you splice it, Lynn appears to have pitched much better as the season has progressed.

Does this mean Lynn can help move the needle in the chase for the AL East title? Probably not. He will have a hard time nudging out any of the Yankees’ top five starters full-time. If he continues to sustain the gains he’s shown over the past couple months, he could prove quite useful as a spot starter and reliever, but it’s unlikely he can shift the tide in the division race meaningfully.

Regardless, Lynn could prove another piece of arbitrage from Cashman if he performs. The Lynn that has shown up since mid-May is at least as good, if not more capable of fitting in the rotation, than the outgoing Warren. And Cashman has more money to chase premier international talent to show for it. This trade is probably small potatoes, but if you look closely, you can see why the Yankees might have swung it.