SAN DIEGO - For all four seasons he's been in the major leagues, John Lannan has more or less known what he is as a pitcher. His game is all about steady repetition of his two-seam fastball, down and away. It might not be his most effective pitch, but without it, his offspeed pitches have little chance to be effective.
Intuitively, Lannan's always grasped that. But his understanding, on a gut level, of what will happen if he tries to be something other than what he is has been a work in progress. It's been tested at various points, perhaps never moreso than when he was sent to Double-A Harrisburg with a 5.76 ERA last June, and developed through discussions with pitching coaches like Randy St. Claire, Steve McCatty and Randy Tomlin.
Right now, though, Lannan is pitching as well as he ever has in the majors. And his latest win over the Padres, just under a year since he was sent to the minors to work out his struggles, was another testament to how far he's come.
Lannan allowed one run on six hits in 6 1/3 innings Saturday night, winning for the second time in three outings as the Nationals beat the Padres 2-1. He's had a better curveball and changeup at other points in his last four starts - during which he's only allowed two earned runs in 26 1/3 innings - but he got through this one primarily by believing in his fastball.
"I'm growing up, and a lot of things that used to get to me don't anymore," Lannan said. "It's learning what kind of pitcher I am. I think last year was the biggest thing for me. That third year made all the difference, getting sent down and having to come back and work on the craft that got me there."
The thing about Lannan is, no matter how effectively he's pitching, everyone either seems to want him to be something else or dismisses the way he gets his results. He's won by inducing weak contact throughout his career, outrunning many of the sabermetrics axioms that say he's due to tumble without the ability to miss bats.
Nothing he throws would be classified by scouts as a plus pitch, and the sinker he uses to set it all up is more of a loss leader than a bona fide weapon; after his fastball rated at 10.2 runs above replacement in 2008, it's been a collective 14.2 runs below replacement since then.
But the pushing and prodding of Lannan's development finally seems to be producing a pitcher who understands what he has to do to be successful. After he gave up six runs in six innings May 21 in Baltimore, striking out a season-high six batters but also allowing nine hits, Lannan had a long talk with McCatty in Milwaukee.
"We talked about other things, but that's one of the things - know what you are," McCatty said. "Just because you don't throw the pitch that everybody else thinks is the right pitch in a certain count doesn't mean you don't know how to throw it. It just means, 'Well, my chances of success on that one, with a pitch that's not my best pitch, aren't as good as just trusting my sinker.' Today, he was even upset, I think it was the fifth inning - he said, 'They're sitting on it. They're looking for it.' I said, 'John, we're going into the sixth inning and you've given up three hits, one run. What's wrong with that? You're throwing the crap out of the ball. Trust yourself.'"
And as Lannan has gone along this year, there are more and more signs he's crystallizing his focus of what will work for him, rather than what might be the right pitch in a textbook sense. With a runner on second and two outs in the fifth inning, Lannan battled Chris Denorfia through a seven-pitch at-bat. But instead of trying to get him to chase a breaking ball on 3-2, Lannan threw a fastball to Denorfia, who beat it into the ground for a rally-killing out.
"I think sometimes you get in the thing where everybody says, 'You've got to mix everything up. You've got to have three pitches, four average pitches.' To me, that's not the case," McCatty said. "You should have two pitches that you can throw over any time in any count. That might be one offspeed pitch, out of the two or three that you have, and your fastball. He's staying with that instead of thinking about, 'I'm learning how to pitch, and now I'm doing all this off-speed stuff behind in the count and all that.' Well, that's not him. When all else fails, you've got to go back to what you trust."