In a Fantasy baseball pitching environment defined by specialization, Lance Lynn reliably provides something few other starting pitchers can: Volume. And he's provided more than that the past two years with the Rangers, rejiggering his pitch selection to maximize the amount of swing-and-miss in his game. Together, his endurance and newfound dominance have positioned him among the best of the best in both real life and Fantasy, where he was the No. 13 point-getter at starting pitcher in 2019 and the No. 6 point-getter in 2020.
Now, he's headed to the White Sox in a trade reported late Monday. At first glance, the move should benefit him by relocating him from the second lowest-scoring team in 2020 to the fifth highest-scoring team, but it's not as simple as that. While still much more of a bat-misser than in his younger days, Lynn took a step back in that area in 2020, leaving him with a worrisome 4.34 xFIP that was the second-highest of his career.
Statcast's 3.26 xERA paints a much rosier picture, though, and of course all of these metrics are obscured by the haze of a too-short season. Still, the lingering performance concerns explain why I'm reluctant to elevate Lynn beyond where I already had him, 17th at starting pitcher.
However, if things break right for him, that workload advantage (he threw six-plus innings in 11 of his 13 starts and seven-plus innings in five of them) could make all the difference, so it isn't at all surprising to see the White Sox give up a legitimate asset for him, even with only one year remaining on his contract. Lynn gives a playoff hopeful another impact arm at the top of their starting rotation — a unit currently led by Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, with Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech both capable of taking a big step forward.
We talked about the impact of the trade and the fallout from it on Monday's Fantasy Baseball Today podcast. Check it out below and subscribe via Apple, Spotify, or anywhere else you get your podcasts:
But for a brief stretch in 2020, it looked like Dane Dunning, the aforementioned asset going back to the Rangers in the deal, was going to leapfrog those latter two and become the third impact arm in the White Sox rotation. He had earned high marks for his command and pitch selection coming up through the minors, compiling a 2.74 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 10.2 K/9 over parts of three seasons, and arrived with a flourish, delivering a 17.9% swinging-strike rate (which would have ranked second among qualifiers) over his first three starts. They were brief, averaging less than five innings between them, but they were scintillating, and they had me ranking him up there with Ian Anderson and Sixto Sanchez among rookie pitcher call-ups.
But then a funny thing happened: Over his next four starts, Dunning's swinging-strike rate cratered to 6.9%, which would have ranked dead last among qualifiers. It was easy enough to overlook when the first two of those starts (zero earned runs in six innings and one earned run in seven) saw him go deeper into the game, but then when he collapsed over his next two starts, it wasn't a real mystery why. The righty had adopted a pitch-to-contact approach, and all the contact was catching up to him.
So was it a deliberate decision, or did he just run out of steam? Judging by the change in pitch selection that directly coincided with the change in swinging-strike rate, I'd say the former. His best results came on the four-seamer and slider, which he featured more prominently in those first three starts, throwing each about a quarter of the time. But he faded them for more of his two-seamer and changeup over his final four starts.
My suspicion is that old school pitching coach Don Cooper, who has since been let go, was encouraging Dunning to pitch to contact so he could go deeper into his starts, which is exactly what happened at first. But pitching to contact generally isn't a wise strategy in today's power-saturated environment. And judging by those first three starts, Dunning is too talented to need to resort to it.
I suspect the Rangers recognize as much to have given up their best trade asset for him, so while I had soured on Dunning as a sleeper after that gangbusters start to his career, initially slotting him at 66th in my starting pitcher rankings for 2021, I have renewed optimism for him with this deal and can probably fit him into my top 60 now.