For most of his career, John Lannan has been a strange kind of left-hander. He’s relied on his fastball to generate weak contact, which is certainly an approach many lefties have taken, but without the put-away breaking ball that some have, he hasn’t been able to carve out any kind of platoon advantage. Lefties hit .263 off Lannan in his career, only eight points worse than righties do.
But this season, Lannan has been a different pitcher against left-handed hitters, and naturally, it’s required a strange kind of response to make it happen.
Through several conversations with pitching coach Steve McCatty, Lannan has come to a better understanding this season of what he is and what he’s not; he has to pound his fastball over the plate to be effective, and he’s not going to fool hitters with a curveball and slider that have been, at best, average during his career. So to give lefties something else to think about, he’s turned to a pitch most left-handers won’t throw to them: a changeup.
Lannan has thrown the pitch a career-high 17.5 percent of the time this year, and he’s reaping the benefits: lefties are hitting just .193 against him, and he’s got a 3.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio against them. On Tuesday, against the Braves’ lefty-heavy lineup, Lannan struck out a season-high eight batters.
“I had to just realize what I realized in Milwaukee, having that talk with Cat,” Lannan said. “I realized what I am, and that’s just sinker-changeup. I’d say my secondary stuff was pretty good today. I’m not trying to strike guys out. I’m trying to have early contact, but when I feel good about my off-speed, especially my changeup, it’s really a pitch I’ve got to really work on and keep going with.”
Changeups are typically seen as a tool for pitchers while facing an opposite-handed hitter (a lefty against a righty, for example) for two reasons: First, they look like a fastball when thrown effectively, so they give hitters something else to think about instead of sitting on a fastball. And second, they can break down and in toward a hitter’s bat, giving left-handed pitchers the same kind of trouble against a lefty that they’d have if they typically threw a slider to a righty.
But Lannan has found effectiveness in going against the grain, much like Sean Burnett did in throwing a slider to righties last year; because most pitchers won’t do it, many left-handed hitters aren’t used to adjusting to a changeup from a lefty.
“I think the biggest thing when I learned to throw a changeup to lefties was the Phillies,” Lannan said. “(Chase) Utley and (Ryan) Howard, to get them off the outside pitch, I needed something else inside. If you look at the numbers, most lefties struggle on changeups. They don’t see it much. I’ve just got to have the confidence to throw it, and it works.”