Those who have watched John Lannan pitch for the last two years have no doubts about his bona fides as a major league starter: his high number of quality starts, his ability to stop a losing streak, his resolve when put in a tenuous situation. He has acted and pitched like their version of an ace, and the Nationals have believed in him as such; he made his second Opening Day start in as many years on Monday.
But those around baseball who've tried to quantify Lannan's value, rather than understand it up close, have reached some different conclusions. Lannan's numbers - a 3.91 ERA in 2008 and a 3.88 ERA last season - suggest a front-line pitcher, but other stats (his strikeout-to-walk ratio, his average on batted balls) imply his style of pitching won't work forever.
Here's what makes Lannan a conundrum to sabermetricians: He doesn't miss bats like most top-end starters do, so he relies on his ability to generate weak grounders off his sinking fastball. The problem is, that works best when he's got a high-quality defense behind him (the Nationals led the league with 143 errors last year), and it can cease to be a workable approach once hitters figure him out.
Fangraphs posted this essay on Lannan at the end of last season, asking if he's got an innate ability to make batted balls off him weaker than they would typically be off a pitcher throwing 88- and 89-mph fastballs, or if he's simply been the beneficiary of good luck so far. As Jack Moore, the author, put it: "The question that needs to be answered here is whether or not there's something repeatable about the apparently poor quality of balls put in play against Lannan."
Lannan gave up five runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings in an 11-1 loss to the Phillies yesterday, most of the damage coming in the fourth inning. He threw just 38 of his 72 pitches for strikes, and 16 of the 22 balls put in play against him were either fly balls or line drives -- far from the mix Lannan needs to be successful.
The other piece of data that needs to be considered with that result is this: Lannan has historically been very bad against the Phillies. His lifetime ERA against them is now 6.32, and the Phillies have a .547 slugging percentage against him. And he's got an 0-7 record in nine career starts against them.
"Philly's a tough team to stop once they get their momentum, and their momentum kept on going," Lannan said Monday. "I couldn't stop it."
I've watched Lannan enough the last two years to believe he's a legitimate fixture in a big-league rotation; he rarely makes the same mistakes twice, he voraciously studies information about his starts and his two-seam fastball is sharp enough and precise enough that he can get most hitters out simply by locating it effectively, over and over. He didn't do that against the Phillies, and he's rarely done that against left-handed hitters, who've hit .278 against him in his career. That's odd for a left-handed pitcher, and Lannan spent a good chunk of the spring working on locating his fastball better against lefties.
His next start is against the Mets on Saturday, and Lannan has faired much better against them in his career; his ERA is 3.62, and the Mets have hit just .219 against him. And he'll get another crack at the Phillies next Thursday in Philadelphia.
This is a big year for Lannan, though; he's arbitration-eligible after the season, and he's now with Brodie Van Wagenen, who represents Ryan Zimmerman and the Phillies' Ryan Howard, and worked out long-term deals for both.
A source said this spring that Van Wagenen has not begun talking to the Nationals about a multi-year deal for Lannan, but expected those talks to happen sometime soon. If Lannan continues to succeed with his pitch-to-contact approach, he can make himself a lot of money this year -- probably a good deal more if he can stay away from the nasty outings against the Phillies that have soiled his numbers.
His next two starts will give him a chance to put his year on good footing. They might also help sabermetricians figure out exactly why Lannan has been so good.